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Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan
May 18 through September 12, 2010

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Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Melencolia I, 1514
9 7/16 x 7 5/16 inches (240 x 186 mm)
Bequest of Belle da Costa Greene; 1950.33

Melencolia I is arguably the most famous and enigmatic print in the history of art. Melancholy, represented in the engraving as a woman, gained a positive interpretation thanks to such Italian Renaissance theorists as Marsilio Ficino, who linked it to artistic genius. Her imbalance of humors evident from her dejected demeanor, Melancholy appears to doubt the usefulness of mathematics in creating art. A plane, ruler, stone rhomboid, and compass lie abandoned as she gazes upward, hinting at Dürer's belief that geometry "may prove the truth of some things; but with respect to others we must resign ourselves to the opinion and judgment of men." In the lower right corner, the initial D circumscribed by an A signifies Dürer's ownership of this work.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Design for the Decoration of a Saddle
Pen and dark brown ink
Signed with the artist's monogram, and dated in lighter ink by another hand, 1517
8 5/8 x 11 5/16 inches (220 x 287 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910; I, 256

Dürer gained international reputation as a draftsman yet also participated in the renowned metalwork tradition of his native Nuremberg. His father and brothers were goldsmiths, and Nuremberg was, along with Augsburg, a center of armor production during Dürer's lifetime. This design for a saddle decoration—perhaps a pommel plate or seat—was probably made for Dürer's principal patron, Emperor Maximilian I. Using fine ink lines, the artist depicted intricate grapevines interspersed with motifs that include the double-headed eagle of the Hapsburg family, a man playing bagpipes, a nude woman holding a mirror, and a fantastic half-unicorn, half-serpent creature. Complex yet clear, this design demonstrates Dürer's ability to adjust his draftsmanship to meet the demands of a local craft.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Design for Decoration in the Town Hall of Nuremberg, 1521
Pen and brown ink with watercolor, silhouetted and mounted on another sheet, probably by the artist
Signed with the artist's monogram and dated in wreath at lower center, 1521
10 1/16 x 13 13/16 inches (256 x 351 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910; I, 257

As he advocated in the Four Books on Human Proportion, Dürer united a variety of sources in this watercolor design for a wall in the town hall of Nuremberg. Between arched windows, roundels depict the Old Testament stories of David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah, as well as the classical legend of Aristotle and Phyllis. Collectively, they share a popular contemporary theme: the power of women. Surrounding the vignettes is decorative foliage inhabited by pagan satyrs and the Christian motif of the pelican. The choice of a well-known artist like Dürer for this commission denotes civic leaders' conviction that the town hall was not only a place of government but also a source of local pride. Nevertheless, this decorative scheme was never realized.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Coat of Arms of Michael Behaim, ca. 1520
11 5/8 x 8 1/8 inches (295 x 206 mm)
Purchased by the Morgan Library, 1930; 2006.81

Original woodblock for Coat of Arms of Michael Behaim
11 1/8 x 7 3/4 inches (282 x 197 mm) Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1926; AZ127

It was through his printmaking that Dürer's skill as a draftsman gained international recognition. He worked in engraving, etching, and the form used here, woodcut. Heraldic designs, in this case the coat of arms of the Behaim family, were a major type of commission. This print, perhaps a bookplate, was made for Michael Behaim, a Nuremberg patrician whose name appears on a legal document as witness to Dürer's purchase of a garden in 1512. The Morgan is fortunate also to have in its collection the woodblock used to make this print. A comparison of the block and the print illustrates the reversal that occurred in the printing process.

Transcription and translation of letter from Albrecht Dürer to Michael Behaim

thumbnail of back of woodblock
+zoom letter
Libr her michell beheim Ich shick ewch dis waben widr pit latz beleiben es wurt ewchs so keiner verpessern dan Ich habs mit fleis kunstlich gemacht dorudys sehen vud ferstend dy werden ewch woll berscheid sagn soll man dy lewble awff dem helm vber sich werffen so verdecken su dy pinden.

Albrecht Dürer

Dear Master Michael Beheim, I send you back the coat of arms again. Please let it stand as it is. No one could improve it for you because it was made artistically and with care. Those who see it and understand such matters will tell you so. If the leafwork on the helmet were curled backward, it would hide the braid.

Your humble servant
Albrecht Dürer

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Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.