Saturday, 13 July 2013

Research Point: Renaissance Masters' Depiction of Animals

I have already touched on this subject in my previous  research point about Albrecht Durer. One of the key points about the renaissance (according to 19th Centrury historian Jacob Burkhardt in 'The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy' but debated since) was that the sense of the individual person became a more important subject than in  previous ages. This gave rise to the concept of the 'Renaissance man' - a multi-talented, ideal 'Uomo Universale'. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Durer would typify this concept. This concept of this individual and sense of self gave rise to developments in portraiture to represent the individual but also meant that artists started to combine art and science  to get closer to their 'ideal' representation of nature - their aim was really to enhance nature and produce idealised images through close study. 

Leonardo and Durer were both influenced by painters that preceded them from the Netherlands such as Jan Van Eyck. An example of the evolution from medieval to renaissance art is the Ghent altarpiece. Medieval altarpieces were sumptuously decorated with gold leaf and the symbolism of the figures depicted was much more important than accurate anatomical representation.  The Ghent altarpiece show human and animal figures represented with a much greater attention to accuracy and realism.(1)

Fig 1: The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyks

Leonardo da Vinci made numerous observations on numerous scientific and philosophical subjects (including comparative anatomy and zoology) notebooks throughout his life (2). He had an intense interest in nature and in representing animals for their own sake and for his scientific interest rather than for their purely symbolic value. He questioned man's superiority to and right to exploit other members of the animal kingdom which was a view very much out of step with the conventions of the time. (3). He published a treatise 'on the flight of birds' which was the first documented analysis of the principles of flight (4). He was also reputed to purchase caged birds in order to release them. 

Fig 2: Excerpt from Codex on the Flight of Birds

Leonardo made close inspection of animals and made numerous drawings. He would also use dissections to look more closely at the anatomy of animals and to make comparisons with human dissections he made. He made numerous sheets of studies of cats and dogs.

Fig 3: Studies of  dog paws: Leonardo has captured everything
from the angulation of the digits and claws to the
wiry/feathery texture of the hair of this rough coated dog

Fig 4: Da Vinci's attempt at comparative anatomy
of a dog's hindlimb and human leg
Fig 5: Study sheet of a dog and two cats. Particularly
impressive are his understanding of the distribution of
weight and body position in the grooming cats.

Fig 6: Study sheet of numerous cats in various positions and with various attitudes. Also included
on this sheet are a mouse and a dragon.

Fig 7: Study of a dog's face. Here measurements have
been made in attempt to make the process of drawing
more scientific.
Leonardo clearly studied these animals in great detail to get a clear understanding of the way they are formed and the way the they move and how their weight is distributed. 

Horses were ubiquitous as a mode of transport in the day of these artists so it is not surprising that there are very many studies of horses and horses and riders produced by Da Vinci.
Fig 8: Of particular interest to me in this study is the way that
Da Vinci has captured the folds on the animals neck and between
the forelimbs. You really get a sense of the thickness and the smooth
velvety texture of the animal's skin

Fig 9: This sketch shows active investigation and inquiry. He has
captured the violence of the rear and the powerful musculature
of the animal's hind legs.

Fig 10: Despite that the fact the the rider is leaning to the
side in this sketch. Leonardo knows perfectly where to place their
weight and centres of gravity so that the horse and rider are in
harmony and there is no irksome feeling that they might topple over.

It is clear from the vast amount of attention that Leonardo paid to his animal subjects that he had a great interest in them as subjects and he wanted to understand them in detail. The images produced by this painstaking staking study and enquiry are vital and alive.

Albrecht Durer:

I refer the reader back to my previous research point - 'Mastery of Detailed Drawing' where images of engravings especially of horses can be seen. There are also watercolours of bird plumage and of a hare. The close observation of the texture of the plumage of the bird and of the fur of the hare result in a particularly life-like appearance. 

As well as being interested in the proportions of the human figure Durer also worked on the construction of the equine figure and may have been influenced in this by earlier work by Leonardo da Vinci.  This work clearly paid dividends in this engraving. (5)

Illustrated here are two engravings concerned with this enquiry. The Great Horse and The Small Horse.
Fig 11: The Great Horse 

Fig 12: The Small Horse

To my untrained eye, the small horse is the more successful of these two in terms of Durer's aims of perfect proportions. Interpretation of the Great Horse is complicated by the foreshortening caused by the orientation of its body. However, this horse's legs seem somewhat short and also thin compared to the massive muscular body portrayed. 
A comment I would make on comparing the depictions of horses by Da Vinci and Durer is that Durer's engravings seem more formal and objective - almost more scientific in their presentation compared to the vitality and violence of the rapid gestural drawing of the rearing horse by Da Vinci. Even in the lovely textural watercolours by Durer he seems to look at the animals as objects to be accurately drawn. With Da Vinci I get more of a sense that he was engaged with the animals as animals. With their spirit and their characteristic ways of moving and behaving.

While I was looking for works by Durer - I came across depictions of animals by another Northern European artist Hans Hoffman who worked a little later than Durer in the renaissance. I looked at some of his work on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on The Met Museum Website(6). The thing that delights me about these images is not only the exquisite rendering of the textures but also the animated light in the animal's eyes - these animals are clearly alive - not dissection specimens! Therefore in the renaissance two changes have occurred. We have moved from the depiction of animals without great attention to their individual features for their symbolic value, through scientific, objective depiction of animals with anatomical details and ideal proportions, to some degree of subjective representation of the individuality and character of animals.

Fig 13: Hans Hoffmann: Hedgehog

Fig 14: Hans Hoffman: Wild Boar Piglet

(1) Johnson, G, A: Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Kindle Edition.
(2) Leonardo da Vinci : Notebooks  Oxford World's Classics- Selected by Irma A Richter - Edited with an introduction by Thereza Wells) (Kindle Edition 2008) Oxford University Press
(3) Leonardo Da Vinci unleashed : the animal rights activist within the artist. The Guardian Jonathan Jones On Art Blog 2013
(4) Science in the Art of the Italian Renaissance II: Leonardo Da Vinci's Representation of Animals in His Works. Douglas D. Kane Ohio Journal of Science 102(5): 113 - 115, 2002
(Ohio State University Knowledge Bank)
(5) Wolf, N : 'Albrecht Durer 1471-1528 The Genius of the German Renaissance' Taschen 2007

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