What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things. – Albrecht Dürer
Who was Albrecht Dürer?
Dürer and the Woodcut »
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), preeminent master of the German Renaissance, transformed drawing in northern Europe. Using his unrivaled talent as a draftsman and the force of his powerful artistic persona, Dürer tirelessly promoted drawing as a medium, creating works of exceptional beauty and remarkable technical skill. The exhibition includes eight extraordinary drawings by Dürer that demonstrate the variety and dynamism of his draftsmanship. Also included are prints and treatises by the artist.
Among the many highlights of the exhibition that illustrate Dürer's preoccupation with beauty are his seminal engraving of 1504, Adam and Eve along with its most important extant related preparatory drawing. To create the work, Dürer joined several sheets of paper, and then unified the composition with brown wash to create a perfect balance between the two figures. Dürer's efforts to resolve the composition are evident; both figures hold the apple that led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Ever cognizant of his authorship, Dürer added his monogram and the date to the drawing. This iconic image, perhaps more than any other, documents how the artist strove to create both beauty and harmony in his depictions of the human form.
Demonstrating the persistence of Dürer's fascination with perfect proportions is another work from about a decade later, Constructed Head of a Man in Profile. By overlaying a grid on a man's head delineated in pen and brown and red ink, Dürer used geometry to construct a profile with mathematical precision. Also on view is a 1532–34 edition of his landmark treatise, Four Books on Human Proportion, a work in which he articulated his artistic philosophy and the centrality of proportion in his depictions of the human body.
Dürer, however, did not limit himself exclusively to a mathematical ideal. He also turned to the natural world as a source for his art. During Dürer's lifetime, empirical observation became increasingly valued throughout northern Europe, as exemplified by the accurate topographical view of his hometown in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. One of the most famous printed books of the fifteenth century, it was published by Dürer's godfather, Anton Koberger. A similar commitment to observation is evident in the rugged features and fuzzy textures of Dürer's unidealized charcoal portrait of his brother Endres. For Dürer perfection could exist in no single individual; he appreciated humanity's variation and even its flaws.
Dürer saw beauty not only in the world around him but also in the spiritual realm. Kneeling Donor, a study for his altarpiece Feast of the Rose Garlands for the church of San Bartolomeo in Venice, reveals how deeply he was inspired by religious subjects. He adopted the technique of brush and black ink with gray wash and white heightening on blue paper during his 1505–7 stay in Venice. Also on view is one of his most famous engravings, Melencolia I. This enigmatic image of the allegorical figure of Melancholy, her head leaning upon her hand, has been seen alternatively as a statement on artistic creativity and as evidence of Dürer's interest in ancient debates over the definition of beauty.
In other instances, Dürer turned to the aesthetic tradition of Germany, Nuremberg in particular, for inspiration. Dominating his drawing Abduction on Horseback is a hairy brute resembling the Wild Man, a folk figure with a long tradition in German art. The frenetic pen lines may be explained by the fact that the drawing was made in preparation for one of Dürer's six known etchings—a new technique in northern Europe. He drew from the rich metalwork in Nuremberg as well; both his father and father-in-law were among the legion of renowned gold- and coppersmiths for which the city was famous. Dürer's intricate design in pen and dark-brown ink for the decoration of a saddle shows the artist's personal commitment to this decorative tradition. Further documenting his inventiveness is the bright, multicolored watercolor for a wall scheme in the Nuremberg town hall, a civic center and source of local pride whose decoration was extremely important to the city.
In his pursuit of beauty, Dürer devoted careful attention to every aspect of artistic production. On view in the exhibition are a woodcut, its associated woodblock, and a letter to the patron for whom it was made. In the letter, Dürer wrote, "Please let it be as it is. No one could improve it because it was done artistically and with care. Those who see it and who understand such matters will tell you so."
Beauty is based on what the viewer feels on a conscious and base-instinct level. Most of what we consider to be beautiful is based on our genetics and our environment. This essay defines beauty and its influences when it comes to sexual attraction between humans. This essay focuses on beauty in human terms and takes no account of how this may work in the rest of the animal kingdom.
Beauty is genetic
A person becomes beautiful if they win the genetic lottery and grow to be viewed as sexually attractive to other humans. How you grow and develop does depend on your genetics, otherwise identical twins would not grow to look the same.
How we view beauty is also based in genetics. Humans are given instincts in order to further their race, and one of those instincts is a lust for sex. This is driven by sexual attraction. How attractive a person is will be (on some level) based on your sexual drive and base instincts.
Base instincts and survival
Beauty is often determined by your own base instincts and the survival of your offspring. A person that is sickly is not attractive because your base instincts tell you to avoid sick partners because they make for less productive parents. Pink and red lips in men and women suggests good health, as do red cheeks, white eyes and good hair–all of which are therefore attractive qualities in a potential sexual partner.
A strong and large body on a man is sexually attractive because those are traits that parents want in their kids (on a base instinct/biological level anyway), in the same way that large breasts and wide hips are a sign of good health and a potentially better parent; i.e. a parent that is the most likely to have a child survive to adulthood.
Even is better
How even and balanced a face is, is also a sign of good health and is therefore more attractive. If a face is the same on one side as it is the other, then people tend to be viewed as more attractive. Tests were done showing two pictures, one with a person with an unaltered face, and one that was made from a face with one half mirrored on the other side (competently done so that people couldn’t tell). Most found the mirrored version to be the most attractive because both sides of the face were more even.
What is available?
Due to our base instincts, it is again possible to find beauty in what is there. The Eskimo people at the North Pole are possibly the most unattractive race on the planet, but because they all grow up around each other with few outside influences, they find some members of their race to be incredibly attractive and some to be less attractive.
Beauty is a matter of opinion, and does not take attractiveness into account because people are often attracted to personality too. A lot of what we consider to be beautiful is based in genetics and in our base instincts. It also has a lot to do with how well each person may raise a child to survive to adulthood, and how even a face is. There is also an element of finding what is available to be beautiful.