Robust and Reasoned

Albrecht Dürer’s Visionary Realism

by Donald Kuspit

I have painted it with great care, as you will see, using none but the best colors I could get. It is painted with good ultramarine under, and over, and over that again, some five or six times; and then, after it was finished, I painted it again twice over so that it may last a long time. Since you will keep it clean I know it will remain bright and fresh 500 years, for it is not done as men are wont to paint.

—Letter of Albrecht Dürer to Jacob Heller, August 26, 15091 


And suppose that Dürer had been excellent in no other way, the intaglio of his copper-plate engravings would suffice to render him immortal. For this intaglio represents the reality and vitality of nature with an incomparable closeness of detail, in such a way that his creations have the look of not being drawn, but painted; and not painted but alive.

—Lodovico Dolce, Dialogo della pittura, 15572


Looking at the colors in Albrecht Dürer’s The Great Piece of Turf (1503), a watercolor and gouache heightened with white, one cannot help but be astonished at the freshness of the colors and the boldness of the image. Made 510 years ago—ten years longer than Dürer said the colors of the Heller Altarpiece would last—the work seems to have outlasted time. Described by Christof Metzger as “among the greatest masterpieces of draftsmanship in existence,”3 it might also be described as among the greatest masterpieces of painting in existence, considering that gouache is a technique of painting. The watercolors are opaque, but glisten with light and shadow, making some of the details seem transparent. Indeed, so delicate is the handling that the leaves that flank the turf on the left and the strands of grass that grow on its right seem oddly translucent. It is as though one were looking into nature as well as at it. This great work was featured in “Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints from the Albertina” (March 24–June 29, 2013), at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The Great Piece of Turf is observed up close, as though Dürer had lowered himself to the earth to study it, suggesting that, however unconsciously, he felt that he and the turf had something in common: both had their place in the same natural order of things, however much the earth’s place was at the bottom and man’s place at the top. It was not simple curiosity that drove Dürer to depict the turf, living proof of nature’s vitality and greatness, but his conviction that man was just as great and vital. For Dürer, being true to nature in art means being true to oneself, for making art is one way man can be true to himself: consciousness of nature, involving careful attention to its least detail, goes hand in hand with self-consciousness, involving careful scrutiny of every detail of one’s life.

The Great Piece of Turf, 1503, Albertina Museum, Vienna

Art historians have argued that the self-scrutiny and self-assertion evident in Dürer’s self-portraits (and diaries)—they were a revolution in portraiture, let alone in self-portraiture, being the first of their kind—are inseparable from the self-assertiveness and conscience that led to Luther’s revolutionary break with the Catholic Church. He supported Luther from the start, taking Erasmus to task for not unequivocally doing so. Erasmus was finally too cool, scholarly and intellectual for Dürer. The artist admired the theologian, as his portraits of him suggest, but not as much as the hot-blooded, hot-headed, reckless Luther. Dürer’s ardent, daring realism in the realm of art was the equivalent of Luther’s ardent, daring realism in the realm of religion. Both returned to the emotional fundamentals, symbolized by the suffering of Christ, and the communicative fundamentals, evident in Christ’s common touch, the straightforwardness of his words, his unmistakable message. Dürer and Luther did not hem and haw about the truth, as Erasmus seemed to, as though that might stop the Church from splitting—Christianity dividing against itself—although he criticized it with the hope of saving it from itself in The Praise of Folly. Dürer and Luther were too serious to allow themselves the luxury and compromises of irony.

The imitatio Christi evident in several drawings and paintings of himself show Dürer to be a profoundly religious man, at once God-fearing and God-loving, his self-consciousness going hand in hand with consciousness of God. There is clearly something religious about his renderings of nature. For him, nature is sacred; it is God’s creation. His realism conveys a certain awe about the creation, as though he were trying to get at its secret—at the divine creativity that made it. His precision conveys nature’s God-given perfection. The care he devotes to depicting its details emulates the care God devoted to making them. Dürer’s nature is peculiarly supernatural, a sort of earthly heaven, crystal clear yet full of profound meaning. His “super-realism” is the heir to the “super-realism” of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, which Dürer saw and admired. He approaches nature with a sort of pious concentration. His realism is revelatory as well as empirical—empirically concise and incisive, making it all the more strikingly revelatory—perhaps nowhere more so than in his “realizations” of Christ in the Large and Small Passion print series. They reveal Christ as he has never quite been seen before—not transcendentally remote from us, as he often appears to be in medieval art, looking down on us even when he is dying on the cross, but down to earth and very personal and lively, vulnerable yet powerful, a unique contradiction in terms, like Dürer’s supernatural nature, or rather naturally supernatural reality.

Again and again, Dürer shows man and nature together, whether in the bountiful Garden of Eden, as in the 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve, or in the more barren landscape of Knight, Death and the Devil, a 1513 engraving. In Dürer’s works, nature and man “temperamentally” coincide. When man is sanguine, as his Adam tends to be, nature seems equally sanguine, and when man is melancholy, as he is in Melencolia I—the perplexed angel has been understood to be a symbol of the artist—nature seems melancholy. Erwin Panofsky notes that “the sanguine temperament, associated with air, spring, morning and youth, was, and in some measure still is, regarded as the most auspicious one.” In contrast, the melancholic temperament “was hated and feared as the worst,” all the more so because it could “cause the most dreaded of all diseases, insanity.” Panofsky continues to argue that Dürer’s print involves “the intellectualization of melancholy on the one hand, and a humanization of geometry on the other,” giving the malady a more auspicious meaning.4

Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513, Albertina Museum, Vienna

But autumn is a melancholy season, and Dürer was in the autumn of his life when he made Melencolia I, suggesting that it reflects a sort of mid-life crisis and also his creative uncertainty about the future, for winter is a sterile, not a fertile time. It is worth noting that French Romantic poets and artists were interested in Dürer’s Melencolia I—Manet used the bat in it in one of his prints—for the troubled angel seemed to symbolize the mad genius, all the more Romantically insane because of its long, touseled hair and ambiguous gender. Dürer held to the standard doctrine of the four universal temperaments or “constitutions,” as he called them: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholy. They were evident not only in human beings, shaping their personalities, but in nature, making it uncannily personal: thus each of the four elements, four seasons and four winds had its own motivating temperament. They did not simply symbolize the four temperaments, but epitomized and embodied them. Each temperament had its own corresponding body type: Dürer’s studies of the human body are in effect studies of human temperament. As Dürer scholars have pointed out, they climax in his painting of the Four Apostles (1520), each with a different type of body, in accord with their radically different temperaments. They seem harmoniously together, but they are eccentrically distinct and separate individuals.

All of these studies are analytically thorough. The temperamental body is dissected into its fundamentals, revealing their proportional relationship. Dürer knew the Vitruvian canon of proportions innate to the “perfect” human body. The Great Piece of Turf shows the perfectly proportioned body of nature, implying that its proportions mirror those of the human body, indeed, that the perfect human body reflects the innate perfection of nature. The Great Piece of Turf is robust and sanguine, like Dürer’s ideal human body, and like Dürer was when he made it. He was feeling sanguine about the future, for the Apocalypse woodcuts (1496–98) had ensured his artistic reputation and brought him financial success.

Melencolia I, 1514, Albertina Museum, Vienna

The Great Piece of Turf is informed by Dürer’s “scientific” study of the systems of proportion and perspective—alike in that seeing things in perspective shows their proportions, and seeing the proportions of things puts them in perspective—that began around 1500, under the influence of Jacopo de’ Barbari. It involves what Panofsky called Dürer’s “trend toward rationalization,” as though to give what he called a “right grounding” to his art. He felt that his earlier work was “powerful but unsound”—full of “errors of design”—like all German realism.5

But the “soundness” of his later work does nothing to change its power. The Great Piece of Turf is a premier example of the integration of power and proportion—of energy and structure, both innate to and inseparable in embodied natural form, structure containing energy and energy intensifying structure—that became the hallmark of Dürer’s insightful perspective on reality. Praising Dürer on the occasion of his death in 1528, Erasmus wrote: “He can paint anything, even things one cannot paint—fire, sun rays, thunder, electric storms, lightning, and banks of fog, so to speak, the sensory perceptions, all the feelings, and finally the whole human soul as revealed in the body’s form, and almost even the voice itself.”6 Looking at Dürer’s 1494 pen-and-black-ink drawing of Mein Agnes, his introspective young wife, quickly sketched with a few fleeting lines, isolating her in space, and his 1514 charcoal drawing of his aged mother, staring into space, and more deliberately and fully drawn, as though to fix her likeness forever, as though the drawing were a memento mori, surviving and seemingly as self-determined as she was, one sees the truth of Erasmus’ statement: both women are revealed body and soul, showing Dürer’s insightful intimacy with them. The same can be said for the naked women and naked men in The Women’s Bath and The Men’s Bath, both woodcuts and both 1496. The bodies are all different, and indicative of different temperaments. But it is his 1515 etching Christ on the Mount of Olives, an expressionistic tour de force, in which light and darkness are beside themselves with contrast, and nature seems storm-torn between life and death, that shows Dürer at his most insightful, for it shows insight into Christ’s suffering and spirit, and shares them at a time of crisis in his own life and Christianity. It is perhaps even more realistically visionary and aesthetically brilliant than the Apocalypse prints.


1. Quoted in Elizabeth G. Holt, ed., A Documentary History of Art: The Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1957), I, p. 334.

2. Quoted in Warren Tresidder, “Dürer’s Influence on Venetian Art in the Early Sixteenth Century,” Dürer’s Cities: Nuremberg and Venice (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1971), p. 30.

3. Christof Metzger, “The Great Piece of Turf,” in the section on “Details of Nature Captured and Reformed (1500 and later),” in Andrew Robison and Klaus Albrecht Schröder, eds., Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors and Prints from the Albertina (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2013), p. 134.

4. Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), pp. 156–71, famously argues that Melencolia I is a symbolic representation of the artist’s melancholy, supposedly a sign of unhappy yet divine genius.

5. Ibid., p. 80.

6. Quoted in Robison and Schröder, p. 134. 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3