One of my favourite places to spend time has always been the library. The art section is like a second home and I’m always on the lookout for obscure titles and out of print volumes. Yesterday, I was passing through the city of Hamilton and hit the jackpot at the McMaster University library. There amongst an extensive collection of art books, sat over a dozen volumes dedicated to the first great painter of nature, Albrecht Durer.
Durer was active during the age of the Renaissance and is most famous for his woodcuts and copper engravings. However, what I most admire from his vast output, are the watercolour studies he made birds, plants, animals and landscapes. His wing study of a Blue Roller is as awe inspiring today as it was back in 1512. Even when Durer’s engraved work featured religious themes, he embraced nature and wove it throughout the narrative, never reducing it to background elements or stylized motifs. This is in stark contrast to his contemporaries who often ignored animal life completely (I’m looking at you, Michelangelo)
This fascination with nature set him apart and while he did take on paid commissions from the church or wealthy patrons, he never let his nature studies take a backseat. For instance, when word reached him that a dead walrus washed up on a remote shore, he ventured out in terrible weather to see the carcass firsthand and make sketches. It’s said that he became gravely ill from the encounter, but I suspect Durer would have considered his mission a success.