This exhibit features selected works, mainly portraiture, of theGerman artist Albrecht Dürer which demonstrate his use oflight and line to draw attention to the hands of his subjects.By examining these paintings in chronological order, we cangain an understanding of how the artist’s worldviewdeveloped over time. Dürer began his career as an artist witha wistful view on life, anchored by his religion, and the handsof the subjects in his earliest works reflect this.After exposure to the Italian Humanists during theRenaissance, Dürer’s focus shifted, and he used the hands ofhis subjects to depict the autonomy of mankind as secularbeings with free agency, and a desire for pleasure throughworldly experience. Eventually, he was able to reconcile hisdeep spirituality with his burgeoning Humanist view, for inmuch of his later works he depicted the hands of his subjectsas tools of worship.Dürer also used several motifs throughout his career, whichwill appear with some frequency in the works featuredthroughout this exhibit. Some of these motifs include: •Hands holding a type of thistle thought to bring luck in love •An open-form window with a view of the outside world, to represent worldly desire or experience •Court dress to represent social status—occasionally used ironically, when his subject was not from the suggested upper class
Albrecht DurerAlbrecht Durer the Elder Oil on wood 1490
Albrecht DurerAlbrecht Durer the ElderOil on wood1490This early portrait of the artist’s father is in alllikelihood an accurate representation of thesubject. As a working class artisan, a goldsmithby trade, in this portrait Dürer the elder isdressed modestly and humbly in the clothing ofthe lower class: the dark, earthy tones of hishat, shirt, and cloak represent his position inGerman society. The cloak is a functional articleof clothing, worn strictly for warmth andunadorned with any type of trim, closure, ordecoration.The folds of the cloak, as well as the verticalline created by the cloak’s opening, all draw oureyes downward, to the subject’s hands at thebottom edge of the portrait. The hands, likethe subject’s face, are also highlighted andstand out from the darker hues of the rest ofthe portrait, emphasizing these features. In thisportrait, the emphasis is on the subject’s hands,in which he holds a rosary. This seems mostlikely to indicate the artist’s piety, or perhapsthe artist’s impression of his subject’s piety.
Albrecht DurerPortrait of Barbara Oil on wood 1490
Albrecht Durer Self-PortraitOil on parchment,mounted on canvas 1493
Albrecht DurerSelf-PortraitOil on parchment, mounted oncanvas1493Dürer was not the first artist to createa self-portrait, but he was arguablythe first to use self-portraiture asprolifically as he did. This youthfulrepresentation of the artist reveals ayoung man of just 22, gentlyilluminated against the blackbackground. Once again, the lines ofthe portrait draw our eye toward hishands, which stand out in relief,demanding our study of them. Heholds a thistle plant for luck in love,which lends a romantic and whimsicalfeeling to the depiction. This isreflected in the subject’s face, as well:the dreamy expression, the softlycurved mouth, and the looselycascading hair all indicate awistfulness and even a naivety aboutthe world which Dürer had yet toexperience at the time this portraitwas completed.
Albrecht DurerChrist as Man of Sorrows Oil on wood 1493
Albrecht DurerDresden Altarpiece (Side) Oil on canvas 1496
Albrecht DurerElector Frederick the Wise of Saxony Tempura on canvas 1496
Albrecht DurerAlbrecht Durer the Elder Oil on limewood 1497
Albrecht DurerAlbrecht Durer the ElderOil on limewood1497This portrait of Durer’s father was painted after theartist’s first visit to Italy (and thus his first exposureto Humanist thought). Once again, the subject’sface is highlighted and stands out from the rest ofthe portrait, and the lines of the cloak point ourgaze toward the subject’s hands. The overallcomposition seems faded, however: the colorwashed out; the brush strokes evident in thebackground reflect the harsh lines and slightly downturned mouth of the subject’s face as he staresdirectly outward, his scowling countenance seemingto accuse or to judge.In a radical departure from some of Durer’s morepious works, here his subject’s hands are almostabsent, hidden within the folds of the cloak andshadowed, conspicuously lacking the brightness ofthe flesh depicted in the subject’s face (and also inboth the hands and faces of much of his otherportraiture). Painted just after the artist wasexposed to the Humanist philosophy , Durer seemsto lash out against his former religious-centeredfocus. This portrait resents a startling departurefrom faith—perhaps even a complete denial of it—as the subject buries his hands in a tacit refusal ofhis religious practice.
Albrecht DurerYoung Furleger With Hair Loose Oil on canvas 1497
Albrecht DurerYoung Furleger With Hair Done Up Oil on canvass 1497
Albrecht DurerYoung Furleger With Hair Loose, andYoung Furleger With Hair Done UpOil on canvass1497The previous two portraits are often cited as two sisters of theprominent Furleger family, although their identity cannot beconfirmed for a certainty. “Portrait of a Young Fürleger with HairLoose” depicts a young woman with her hands folded in prayer,her gaze lowered in reverence. Her long hair is loose about hershoulders and uncovered, an indication that she is an unmarriedmaiden, as was the custom during the Renaissance. The sister in“Portrait of a Young Fürleger With Hair Done Up” presents amarked contrast to the former sister, particularly in light of the factthat the portraits were completed shortly after Dürer’s returnfrom Italy. In this portrait Dürer introduces the window as apositive element of the background. The view through thewindow is an open form that gives us just a glimpse of the worldoutside of the domestic sphere, indicating that she is moreworldly, and certainly less pious than her counterpart, creating acomment on the Humanist freedom from religious trappings. Shesees the world beyond her home, and is open to venturing outinto it.The hands as depicted in these portraits of the two Fürleger sistersobviously tell us a great deal about them. While the lines of bothof their gowns draw our eye toward their hands, obviously themore pious sister is using her hands to pray devoutly; the othersister’s hands are more subtle. She holds the thistle believed towork as a love charm, further indicating the gap between thenature of the two sisters.
Albrecht Durer Self-Portrait Oil on panel 1498
Albrecht DurerSelf-PortraitOil on panel1498This portrait was painted after Durer’s first trip to Italyand represents a marked change from his more youthfulself-portrait painted just five years before. As a working-class artist, Dürer would not have dressed in the courtattire featured here. Note the noble white robe and thecloak, which both fall in folds and are painted with linesagain running toward the hands of the subject. Yet here,the working class hands are folded sedately anddisguised in the white gloves, another mark of classdistinction. Even the somewhat haughty gaze of thesubject represents a marked departure from the humblyaverted gaze of his earlier subjects.From this false representation, Dürer seems to bemaking a comment on the lasting importance of theindividuality of mankind on the whole, as well as of theHumanist artists who would usher in this change ingeneral attitude. One clue to this change in attitude isthe inclusion of the window as a positive element; thewindow view is an open form that only hints at theworld at large available to those, like Dürer, who wouldventure to experience it. As we see in this self-portrait,which differs noticeably from Dürer’s 1493 self-portrait,the trip to Italy changed the artist’s view of both himselfand the larger world, which in turn continued to shapehis Humanist beliefs.
Albrecht DurerPortrait of Hans Tucher Oil on panel 1499
Albrecht DurerPortrait of Elizabeth Tucher Oil on panel 1499
Albrecht DurerPortrait of Felicitas Tucher Oil on panel 1499
Albrecht DurerSt Sebastian With An Arrow Oil on panel 1499
Albrecht Durer Self-PortraitOil on limewood 1500
Albrecht DurerSelf-PortraitOil on limewood1500In his 1500 Self-Portrait, Dürer truly reconciles hisburgeoning worldly beliefs with his spirituality,indicating a significant departure from theHumanists of Italy. In this portrait, he clotheshimself in a sumptuous, fur-trimmed cloak, thoughhe never would have owned such a garment on hisworking-class salary. With this “disguise,” he issuggesting that dignity and social standing shouldbe bestowed on someone not based on theirwealth or birthright, but rather by what they offersociety. He is implying that even a humble artist isa contributor and has worth.As with the other portraits featured in this exhibit,we are again drawn to the highlighted flesh tonesof the subject, as the lines and folds of the cloakdraw our eyes toward his hand. Here it is perhapsmost provocative, particularly when combinedwith the daring, Christ-like pose. The hand gentlytouching the cloak indicates, “I am.” The artist,here the subject as well, boldly declares his veryhuman and spiritual existence. The worker’sfingers gently caress the sumptuous fur, declaringhis rightful place in the world and inviting us all tobe elevated to the same status.
Albrecht Durer Salvatore MundiOil on linden wood 1503
Albrecht DurerDrummer and Piper Altarpiece (Fragment) Oil on wood 1504
Albrecht DurerChrist Among the Doctors Oil on panel 1506
Albrecht DurerChrist Among the DoctorsOil on panel1506Dürer led the Northern Renaissance movement inart, and this painting is a clear example of theideals which separated the Northern Humanistsfrom the classic Humanists of Italy. Religion wasthe guiding factor in the north, and in particular,the importance of personal communication withGod—as illustrated with this interpretation ofLuke 2:42-51.The strange composition of this painting (thecrowding and lack of negative space, as well asthe lack of perspective from an artist who was amaster of perspective) seems intentional, as ifDürer wanted to impress a sense of futility. Alsosomewhat strange is the distorted, ugly depictionof the learned men who crowd around the 12-year-old Christ child in a threatening manner, asthey challenge him with their science and reason.The focal point of the composition is the tangle ofhands highlighted in the center of the painting,drawing our attention to the Christ figure behindthe barrier created by the jumble of heads, hands,and books. He is a direct contrast to the frenziedscholars, remaining calm and serene as helectures them on the importance of faith andspirituality over their books.
Albrecht Durer Albrecht Durer Adam Eve Oil on panel Oil on panel 1507 1507
Albrecht DurerOld With PurseUnknown media 1507
Albrecht DurerOld With PurseUnknown media1507This painting is a little referenced portraitwhich returns to the expression ofindividual worth. This time the subject is apeasant, perhaps even an outcast ofsociety: an old woman so poor that shecan’t even afford decent clothing. Yet hersmile is incongruous with her station; sheradiates with happiness. Her lank, silverhair and the deep lines of her face andother exposed skin all draw our eyedownward, toward the highlighted hands,where the large bag of gold coins cannot gounnoticed.This purse seems symbolic of the oldwoman’s worth: she is not smiling becauseshe holds the purse, but rather, she holdsthe purse because she is rich in a way fargreater than the money itself. Like the1498 and 1500 self-portraits, Dürer iselevating the social status of his subject.This peasant woman is even more commonthan the working class artist, but in thisportrait, he is asserting that even she hasgreat value.
Albrecht Durer Albrecht DurerEmperor Charlemagne Emperor Sigismund Oil on panel Oil on panel 1512 1512
Albrecht DurerThe Madonna of the Carnation Oil on parchment, Mounted on pine 1516
Albrecht DurerThe Madonna of the CarnationOil on parchment, mountedon pine1516Dürer was known for his iconic Madonnaportraiture, of which this is a perfect example.The Virgin is painted in rich color andsymmetrical beauty, her head adorned with ahalo of muted light. As with the artist’s earlierpaintings, the highlighted flesh tones draw ourattention to the hands of the Madonna andthe Christ child. She holds a carnation, thesymbol of a mother’s pure love, an elementthat is reinforced by the red color of theflower, as well as of her gown and even herlips. The red carnation additionally representsthe Passion in religious works of art.During the Renaissance the pear symbolizedthe combination of wisdom and sweetness, forwhich the Christ child was often credited. (Itwould later evolve into a representation of,specifically, Christ’s love for mankind.) Düreroften included the pear in his depictions of theChrist child, but this particular paintingperhaps best reflects the symboliccombination of the Virgin’s love and sacrificewith Christ’s love for mankind.
Albrecht DurerBernhard Reese Oil on panel 1521
Albrecht DurerMan With Beret and Scroll Oil on panel 1521
Albrecht DurerSt Jerome in Meditation Oil on panel 1521
Albrecht DurerSt Jerome in MeditationOil on panel1521St. Jerome was a frequent subject for Dürer, but thisparticular painting stands out for its very uniquecomposition. Dürer presents a tight view of hissubject’s upper body, with quite a lot of detailcrammed into the painting. Some clues to hissubject’s servitude as a priest in the Roman CatholicChurch include the red robe, the crucifix on thewall, and the scripture open in front of him.The focal point, however, is again tied to his hands,which our eyes are naturally drawn to amid thebusy composition. His head rests in one hand,indicating his deep contemplation, while the otherhand points to the skull. The latter visual elementprovides a clue to what he is contemplating: death,and therefore presumably, his life. Although itseems a morbid subject to modern audiences,during the Middle Ages and throughout the nextseveral centuries it was considered prudent formankind to meditate on his own life. The questionposed by this meditation seems to be: If death wereto come for me tomorrow, have I lived a life of goodworks? Dürer seems to be using St. Jerome as theexample for the rest of society to follow.
Albrecht DurerFour Holy MenOil on panel1526This painting gives us yet another clue to Dürer’sshifting religious beliefs. The panels seem simple andstraight forward enough: the four figures, sometimesmistaken for apostles (thought only three of them arein fact), stand around the scriptures, held in the openhands of the two figures in the foreground. In theright panel, our eyes are drawn to the cluster ofhands, where we see the figure in the background isholding a scroll, and the main figure in theforeground holds a sword, almost concealed in therobe as it echoes the vertical lines therein. Thisprovides a clue to the controversy: this painting wasnot commissioned by the church, and in fact wouldlater be banned as heretical for it is in support of thegrowing Protestant religion.With this final painting, Dürer has come full circle.He began with portraits that show his subjects’ handsengaged in the deeply religious practices of theRoman Catholic Church, but shortly after that we seethe hands of his subjects as tools of autonomy. Bythe turn of the 16th century, however, he hasreturned to using his subjects’ hands to demonstratea deep spirituality, first in support of the church, butlater evolving into the more forward thinking religionto come out of the Renaissance.