Albrecht Dürer starts a hare

In 1495 a traveller to Italy could have met some of the greatest artists of all times. It sounds like a preposterous plot for a film, but it’s one of those curious coincidences of history.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was influenced by many of his younger and older contemporaries, artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Andrea Mantegna, and Sandro Boticelli. Twice he spent long periods in Venice where he met and admired the great Giovanni Bellini. And had he visited Florence, he might also have unwittingly crossed the path of Lisa Gherardini, better known to posterity as la Gioconda.

Dürer shared with Leonardo a passion for anatomy and form. Celebrated for his innovative techniques in printmaking, his visionary sense, and his theoretical writings, he helped transform the study of human proportions. In an age of religious turbulence, he was sympathetic to the ideas of Martin Luther, to scientific inquiry and artistic innovation, yet his imagination (like Hieronymus Bosch) was populated by monsters, witches, hybrid animals, and marauding soldiers.

Field-hareDürer’s oil paintings were prized, but his most popular works were his drawings, watercolours, engravings, and woodcuts. One of the best known is the “Young Hare”. Completed in 1502, it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of observation, rendered with almost photographic accuracy and sufficiently detailed for the animal to be identified as a mature specimen.

The German title translates as “Field Hare”, but the work is customarily referred to in English as the “Young Hare” or “Wild Hare”. Dürer infused the picture with a warm golden light that strikes the hare from the left, highlighting the ears and the run of fur along the body, giving a spark of life to the eye, and casting a strange shadow to the right. Fine whiskers and the meticulous reflection of a window in the creature’s eye completed the work.

In The Holy Family with Three Hares, the animals are more modestly rendered and in the only other print to feature a hare, the 1504 copperplate engraving Adam and Eve, the hare is turning away, half-hidden behind Eve’s legs. The prominent date and Dürer’s monogram on the “Young Hare” indicate that the artist considered it special, rather than merely a preparatory sketch for something else.

Dürer lived in Nuremberg for much of his life and died there in 1528, possibly a victim of consumption or perhaps the plague. Hans Sachs, the poet cobbler celebrated by Wagner in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, settled in the city in 1516. He, too, admired Luther and it is quite likely that the artists knew each other. Sachs died in 1576 and both men are entombed in St John’s Cemetery

Durer-house(1714)Dürer lived in a large house purchased in 1509 from the family of the Renaissance scientist Bernhard Walther, whose printing press published some of the earliest works on astronomy. It was in the workshop of this house that Dürer drew his hare. The artist’s widow lived in the house until her death in 1539, and the building (which largely survived war-time bombing and is now a museum) is a Nuremberg landmark.

Dürer’s hare is in captivity at the Albertina museum, Vienna, home to approximately 65,000 drawings and one million old master prints. Unfortunately, for conservation reasons, the hare is not always on display; but when it is, it is worth catching.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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