What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things. – Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer was one of the most notable and prominent artists of the European Renaissance. He was born in Nuremberg on May 21, 1471. His father was of Hungarian descent and the name Dürer is the German version of his father’s Hungarian surname. Dürer attended school for several years and then began learning about drawing and goldsmithing from his father, who had a prominent goldsmithing business. Dürer took such an interest in drawing and showed such talent that he went against his father’s wishes and, at the age of 15, began studying drawing under an artist by the name of Michael Wolgemut. Wolgemut was a very talented artist who was well-known throughout Nuremberg, which was a city that was renowned for its prosperous economy and trade with Venice. After he finished studying under Wolgemut, Dürer traveled around Europe for several years, learning from other artists. It was during this time that he painted his first self-portrait in 1493. In 1494, he married Agnes Frey and three months later, he traveled to Venice alone. He painted watercolors and was influenced by Italian painters, such as Giovanni Bellini. When he returned to Nuremberg in 1495, he opened up a woodcut shop. There, he created and sold wooden engravings, a trade that he had learned while working under Wolgemut. He had several assistants who helped with the woodcuts. Often, Dürer drew the picture on the woodcut and then had a craftsmen carve the picture from the woodblock itself. Dürer trained himself to use a difficult engraving tool called a burin and around this time he also painted more watercolors. One of his most notable watercolors is Pond in the Water. He continued painting, drawing, engraving and woodcutting throughout his life. Towards the end of his life, he returned to Italy and traveled to the Netherlands. He died in Nuremberg on April 6, 1528.
Dürer was renowned for his interest in human proportions and beauty. He traveled all over Europe and searched his whole life to find a set definition of beauty. For many years, artists had wondered if there was a true definition of beauty and Dürer was no exception. However, what stands out about Dürer is that in all of his studies and travels, he never once was able to truly define beauty. Dürer created art that was not overly idealized, he wanted to show variation and flaws in humans because he saw beauty in many forms.
If you look at the portraits of the two women above, you’ll notice that one is an apparently well-to-do, white Venetian woman and the other is of an African-descended woman. Her name is Katharina. Dürer saw her in Antwerp, she was the slave of Joao Brandao, a Portuguese representative of the King. It is poignant to me that during a time when often Black people were portrayed in western arts in very demeaning and caricature-like way, one of the most respected artist of the renaissance would choose to draw a portrait of a Black slave woman in such a beautiful and realistic manner. Here we have an African woman who is a slave, which was considered the lowest thing to be at this time, yet Dürer was able to look past the labels of society and see her as a beautiful woman. She is not dressed up in elegant fabric like that of the Venetian woman, who is adorned in a beaded necklace, an ornate dress and velvety ribbons. She is dressed more plainly, she appears to have one pendant dangling from her head and one on her dress. She is not smiling, but her face looks pleasant. Her eyes are beautifully represented and they make you feel connected to her as a person. This portrait, which was done in the 16th century is a far cry from the other representations of Black people at that time and even today, we don’t always see portrayals of Black women that are this realistic or this in-depth. Dürer portrays this woman in a multi-dimensional way. You can look into the eyes in the painting and see that she has a soul, aspirations, hopes and dreams.
It is very telling that her features, her clothing and her position in society are so very different from the Venetian woman that he painted, yet Dürer was able to see her beauty. I think it is powerful that as an artist, he searched for the definition of beauty, yet never found one because he saw that there was so much variation and diversity in beauty that it could never be defined.
I think we, as a society, can learn a lot from these portraits. We have people today who write articles and blog posts about how certain races are inherently less beautiful than others. We have people who only define beauty as having certain features, but if one of the most respected artists of the European Renaissance, who traveled and studied for years, recognized that beauty was too vast to be defined, then that really says something about people who try to put beauty into one stereotypical, tiny box…doesn’t it??? I think it’s significant that a European man (a white man) who lived in an era where Black people were still viewed as slaves and inferior could see the beauty in a Black woman who was a slave.