Research point: Animals in the Renaissance
Look at how Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Durer depicted animals.
The expansive mood of the Renaissance saw a growing emphasis on the secular life. Art mirrored this, and was no longer occupied solely with religious themes. The burgeoning humanist philosophy ‘stood at a point midway between medieval supernaturalism and the modern scientific and critical attitude. Medievalists see humanism as the terminal product of the Middle Ages. Modern historians are perhaps more apt to view humanism as the germinal period of modernism’ (Kreis, 2012). It was within this context that artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) came to prominence.
One of the greatest motivations behind Leonardo’s work seems to have been the desire to understand. This was particularly true of nature, all aspects of which he studied closely and repeatedly. This close observation, and careful recording of what he discovered, was fundamental to all that he did. He was fascinated by animals – their anatomy, their habits, and their movements – and sought to render them with scientific precision, whilst retaining their essential vitality. Whilst his peers focused on humanity and divinity for their subject matter, Leonardo was unique in devoting so much attention to the depiction of animals and natural subjects.
A keen champion of animal rights, ‘…he definitely did question the superiority of humans to the rest of the animal kingdom. It is a repeated theme in his notebooks. He writes in them that humanity is not “king of the animals” but merely “king of the beasts”, that is, a more powerful beast than the rest: and he goes on to rage that we use our power to raise animals for slaughter’ (Jones, 2011).
In the closing years of the 15th century, Leonardo made many studies of horses for a planned equestrian monument to the former Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. Although this monument was never cast, the studies are a rich record of his constant enquiry into the musculature and movement of these creatures. The drawings capture their power and agility with deceptive ease. Deft and varying line work describe so much with so little. I’m particularly intrigued by the restated lines, with original marks left in place. Far from conveying uncertainty, these lines lend an added vibrancy, suggesting the horse in motion. The bold hatching is a further source of energy. No feature is deemed too inconsequential for the artist’s scrutiny.
On a more domestic note, in his studies of cats, Leonardo made meticulous observations of every conceivable gesture – washing, arching, sleeping, fighting – all were of interest. ‘The cats are finely drawn with a great amount of detail in each individual cat. The cats are indeed individuals, with a variety of types and expressions’ (Kane, 2002).
Whilst researching this post, I was struck by the sketchier quality of Leonardo’s work when put beside Durer’s. The former was highly detailed, yet expressive and lively, as opposed to the precise realism of the latter. Then I realised that was possibly because most of the depictions by Leonardo are just that – sketches, studies. He had a tremendous output of drawn work, whilst Durer’s are, to a greater extent, finished pieces of work. With Durer, I am less aware of movement or gesture, overall. He worked in a tighter, more obviously controlled style. However, I did find a study that felt reminiscent of Leonardo (see below). Here, he employs the curved hatching made popular by the (marginally) older artist, and the effect is very lively, and suggestive of movement.
‘Durer was fascinated by nature as he believed that the study of the natural world could reveal the fundamental truths he was seeking to discover through his art’ (Artyfactory, 2013). Such studies are apparent in Two Squirrels, One Eating a Hazelnut, 1512 (see below), which is as endearing as it is precise. Most artists of the time would have been unlikely to concentrate so closely on such a seemingly mundane detail, yet Durer has worked painstakingly to recreate the fur and gestures of these little creatures.
One of Durer’s best known animal pictures was actually made without him ever having seen the beast in question – the Rhinoceros woodcut,1515. ‘The image of the rhinoceros is based on some notes and a sketch done by an unknown artist done in Lisbon in 1515. Dürer never saw the actual creature in real life which accounts for its strange anatomical errors. He enhances the public mythology of this strange beast, which had not been seen in Europe since Roman times, by drawing the folds of its skin like plates of armour and adding an extra horn to its back. It is remarkable that this exaggerated image was generally accepted as an accurate representation of a rhinoceros until around the middle of the 18th century’ (Artyfactory, 2013). The latter statement surely a testament to the strength of Durer’s reputation.
One of the most intriguing animal pictures of Durer’s though, for me, is Sketches of Animals and Landscapes, 1521 (see below). This series of pen and ink studies is so delicately rendered, complete with landscape vignettes. Sensitive line work and a greater feeling of the animals’ characters than is often present in Durer’s work. The facial expressions are a contributing factor in this, I think.
When comparing Leonardo and Durer, the latter seems to place more emphasis on texture, portraying fur and hide in great detail. In general terms, there is a notable sense of stillness about his creatures, whilst Leonardo’s seem barely frozen for a moment. Some of them feel as though they could get up and walk out of the picture. Both artists clearly made extensive studies into the anatomy of animals, but their respective discoveries led them in differing directions.
The main lessons I take away from this research point are:
• close and repeated observation leads to a better understanding of anatomy
• understanding of anatomy enhances the possibilities for evoking movement
• practise making quick gestural lines
• hatching and crosshatching can be relatively minimal, yet highly effective
• I have a preference for the ‘stripped down’ rather than the ‘fleshed out’
• character attracts me more than absolute precision… animals as individuals rather than generic types
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There were a few other Renaissance artists whose work I wanted to include here, too.
Hans Hoffmann – leading representative of the ‘Durer Renaissance’ (born c.1545-50 – died c.1591-92):
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593):
Had to include this extraordinary work, as it seemed to fit the brief for animal depictions, but in a way that illustrated the growing emphasis on humanism.
Pisanello died almost right at the outset of the Renaissance, but he just fits into the time frame. I’m glad, because he has been my big ‘discovery’ in the course of researching this post. Beautifully rendered pieces, with a great emphasis on animals. A fitting forerunner for Leonardo, I think.
Artyfactory (2013) Albrecht Durer [Online]. Available at http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/animals_in_art/albrecht_durer.htm (Accessed 13 August 2013).
Jones, J. (2011) ‘Leonardo da Vinci unleashed: the animal rights activist within the artist’, The Guardian, 30 Nov 2011 [Online]. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/nov/30/leonardo-da-vinci-animal-rights-activist (Accessed 13 August 2013).
Kane, D. D. (2002), ‘Science in the Art of the Italian Renaissance II: Leonardo da Vinci’s Representation of Animals in His Works’, Ohio Journal of Science, vol. 102, no. 5 [Online]. Available at https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/23942/V102N5_113.pdf?sequence=1. (Accessed 13 August 2013).
Kreis, S. (2000/revised 2012) Renaissance Humanism [Online]. Available at http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/humanism.html (Accessed 13 August 2013).