Today is officially the first day of spring, so this week’s appropriately vernal picture is a watercolour of A Young Hare by the German Renaissance master, Albrecht Durer. The work bears the artist’s monogram, “AD”, and is dated, in the artist’s elegant and slightly spidery hand, to the year 1502. It forms part of the formidable drawings collection of the Albertina in Vienna.
The fact that Durer so meticulously signed and dated this depiction, from life, of a crouching hare, suggests that he regarded it as rather more than a mere study. He was one of the first Renaissance artists to state explicitly that a painter’s slighter works might be just as prized as his more ambitious creations. In fact he went further than that, arguing (with some justice) that an artist’s true gifts are often lost or diluted when he paints on a large scale. “It must be said,” Durer wrote in a letter to a friend, “that an intelligent, skilled artist can show his powers and his art more clearly in a small thing than many a man in a big work. Real artists will understand that I speak the truth. It follows that some artists, by drawing something with a pen on half a sheet of paper in one day, can produce better art than others who apply themselves diligently to one big work for a year.” A Small Hare is proof of the proposition. It cannot have occupied Durer for more than a few hours, yet it has become one of his most enduringly popular works. In Germany it is a ubiquitous image, reproduced on countless posters, postcards, teatowels and beermats, occupying a position in the national consciousness somewhat akin to that of Constable’s Hay-Wain in England.
Durer lived during an age of geographical exploration and scientific discovery and his close studies of animals – some exotic, like his famous Rhinocerus, some closer to home, as in the case of the picture reproduced here – are often seen as harbingers of a new, purely empirical approach to the natural world. The precision of his technique and the spareness of his composition, in which the hare and its shadow are isolated on a sheet of cream-coloured paper, certainly give the impression that Durer was utterly absorbed by the reality of the creature before him. Having established the animal’s shape in a careful contour drawing, Durer laid over it a broad wash of colour; and over that he painted the detail of the fur with a fine pointed brush, carefully varying tone and texture and the breadth of his brushstrokes to distinguish between – for example – the soft white hairs poking from beneath the animal’s belly, the tuftier hairs at the nape of its neck and the staccato bristles of the fur on its long, pricked-up ears. The animal’s fine black whiskers seem almost to tremble, like tremulous antennae, outlined on one side against the waves of its fur and, on the other, against the void of circumambient space.
Durer’s contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote that the artist who had truly mastered his craft was a kind of surrogate god: “The painter is lord of all types of people and all things. If he wants valleys, if he wants from high mountaintops to unfold a great plain extending down to the sea’s horizon, he is lord to do so … In fact whatever exists in the universe, in essence, in appearance, in the imagination, the painter has first in his mind and then in his hand.” Durer’s image of a hare carries the same implication of hubris, suggesting the almost god-like creativity of the artist, his ability to conjure up, in two-dimensions, a startlingly realistic image of a flesh-and-blood creature. It seems telling, in this context, that some of the earliest collectors of his drawings and watercolours after nature used to keep them not with their art collections but in their “cabinets of curiosities”, together with strange fossils, curiously shaped sea-shells and marvels of geology like stalactites or spectacular crystal formations. These drawings were seen as wonders, miracles of an artist’s divine ingenuity.
Despite Durer’s much vaunted empiricism, it strikes me that there is something more than a little uncanny about this small, charged image of an animal, alive with its own inscrutable energies. Unlike Leonardo, whose interest in living creatures was essentially mechanical and anatomical, Durer remains an observer of the outside appearances of the creatures which he depicts. He was a deeply religious man who was greatly moved by the thought of such radical, freethinking theologians as Erasmus and Martin Luther, and he responded with particular strength to Luther’s ideas about nature as God’s “second book” – a revelation of divine beneficence but also a reminder of the ultimate mysteries of the Creation. There is a whisper of that here, I think, a sense that Durer’s consciousness of his own quasi-divine powers is tempered by humility, a consciousness of all that he knows he can never know. A window of the artist’s studio is reflected in one of the creature’s bright, liquid eyeballs – a small detail, but one that works to enhance a subtle sense of exclusion. Eyes may be the windows of the soul but this eye merely reflects a window through which nothing is to be seen. The artist looks at the hare and depicts it with brilliance, but feels at the same time that he cannot truly fathom its will or purpose, any more than the ways of God can be understood by men.