December 6th, 2013

Whose work is this?

Who was the artist, and when?:


It’s a drawing by Albrecht Dürer, made in 1493 when he was 22 years old. It seems remarkably contemporary to me, considering. I guess pillows haven’t changed all that much—except for the invention of Memory Foam.

I don’t much care for memory foam. Sometimes it seems too hard and heavy; just not right. I prefer a pillow I can pummel and fold and wrestle with.

Here’s one of my very favorite (and timeless) Dürer works. It is hyper-realistic, but unlike some art of that type it isn’t sterile. It conveys the character of a living, breathing animal:


25 Responses to “Whose work is this?”

  1. DirtyJobsGuy Says:

    Look at the date 1502 and compare this level of art (both in technique and creativity) with art of the same era in the Ottoman Empire, India, China and Mesoamerica. There was a reason Western Civilization was considered more advanced than the others and this is a great example

  2. Steve Says:

    On a somewhat related note, have you heard about the new Vermeer documentary?

  3. T Says:


    Sorry, but your statement stems from the false premise that art which copies a three dimensional visual reality is superior to art which doesn’t.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. Art is a language (the arts are languages). We would never say that all writing should sound like a research paper; forget novels, forget poetry, forget Shakespeare, and forget dance because we don’t move in everyday life the way a dancer moves on a floor.

    This is to be distinguished from what one likes or prefers. One can like illusionistic art more than abstraction, nothing wrong with that, but to unequivocally say it’s superior to all other forms is like a Progressive defending Keynesian deficit spending as the only valid economic theory. It’s a one-dimensional argument based on a false premise.

  4. Gringo Says:

    Steve, thanks for the Vermeer link. Fascinating.

  5. blert Says:


    Upon the record, it would appear that the other cultures COULDN’T properly draw in perspective.

    As for Islam, it was deemed harram to portray the living… a notion that must have extended to animals because there are no examples existent.

    Perspective drawing was a NEW thing even in Western Europe. It’s a BIG DEAL and is simply not found elsewhere or before its Western realization.

    It’s of a part of the modern age — a major artistic break — not to be equated to mere matters of style.

    For the first time anywhere, 3-D space was cast down onto 2-D canvas in total realism. It was a new epoch.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    DirtyJobsGuy, T, blert:

    Some cultures chose to depict things in a certain way. For example, the ancient Egyptians seem to have done this, painting people in a cartoonish, less realistic manner, and yet painting animals in a much more realistic manner (to me, somewhat reminiscent of Japanese art). See the photos here. They don’t use perspective very much in that the paintings are rather flat, but they are very sophisticated and beautiful.

  7. carl in atlanta Says:


    Yes, thanks for that link on the Vermeer project. Great read, I want to see the movie!

    There’s something special about Penn and Teller, no?
    And that Jenison guy, wow.

  8. T Says:


    Your point is incomplete. One-point perspective was invented in the 15th century by the Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi. It was created to allow him to show drawings of potential buildings to patrons as a descriptive rather than an evocative means of communication.

    Contrary to popular belief, perspective does not actually show the world as we see it; it shows the world as we partly see it. When gazing onto the horizon, only part of the horizon is seen as a one-point perspective. Peripheral images remain blurry, unfocused and indistinct. We correct for that by constant micro-movements of our eyes much like we constantly make mini-corrections with our steering wheel while driving.

    In fact, perspective is not, as you describe it, total realism. It is not real at all. Perspective deforms true shape in order to represent spatial relationship (it originated in architecture). For example railroad tracks do not converge and disappear on the horizon line; they are parallel lines. Railroad ties do not get shorter as they recede nor are they more closely spaced. Again their true shape is deformed because the artist chooses to represent spatial relationships over true shape.

    Now one might respond “But that’s the way we see!” I say, “So what? Why does duplicating the way we see make a work of art more valid than not?” In fact whether an artist represents true shape (and distorts the spatial relationship ) or represents the spatial relationship (and distorts true shape) is six of one and a half dozen of the other. Both artists are distorting something.

    It wasn’t that one-perspective could not be created before the Renaissance, it’s that earlier cultures had no need to do it therefore it wasn’t done. Your point above is based upon a common cultural conceit that illusionism is “better” than abstraction. That’s a quality judgement, not a judgement based upon facts.

    Many people believe that illusionism is superior to abstraction because that’s mostly the way we relate to the world—in 3-D. But so what? Wenn ich dieses Satz auf Deutsch scrhreiben, werden Sie es schlectes English nennen? (If I write this sentence in German would you call it bad English?) Of course not, it’s not English. In the same way, abstraction is not “bad art” simply because it is non-spatial. We tend to accept more readily and without question, because like English, it’s the language we speak here. To prefer illusionism over abstraction is a quality judgement for each of us to make individually. Prefer illusionism? That’s fine, that makes it preferable to you, that doesn’t make it “better” any more than my English sentences are better than my German sentence.

    Neo, above, raises the example of Egyptian tomb painting. The ancient Eqyptians were capable of carving and painting wildlife so precisely that they are like Audubon renderings. Even today, 4,000 years later, we can still identify and type this wildlife by genus and species.

    So why didn’t they do this with human anatomy? Statuary shows generic torsos, the left leg extended is actually longer than the straight leg, hands are held stiffly down at the sides. Yet, the portrait faces are very precise lively and individualized (less so with the Pharoah). (n.B., Neo, one of the best is a Middle Kingdom statue of a woman in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts)

    In great part, it’s because they understood that spatial relationships imply the transitory appearance of nature, and their message was a message of the eternal nature of the universe. If your interested in the eternal, you don’t deform shape to indicate transitory space, if you deform it at all, you do so to convey eternity. You follow different rules. The Egyptian artist followed different rules than the Renaissance artist because they had different purposes.

  9. rickl Says:

    I remember finding “Young Hare” astonishing when I first saw it as a child. It seemed far ahead of its time. It still does, to me. It easily matches if not exceeds Audubon’s paintings three centuries later.

    While I can appreciate primitive and abstract art, I have to come down on the side of DirtyJobsGuy here. I think hyper-realism is simply superior. It takes a hell of a lot more skill to paint that way than in a stylized or abstract manner. So I guess it should come as no surprise that Norman Rockwell is my favorite American artist.

  10. rickl Says:

    Oh, and Albrecht Durer has his own website! I bet he didn’t expect that 500 years ago.

  11. T Says:


    IMO it’s not matter of coming down on one side or another, it’s a matter of personal preference. We like what we like for numerous reasons. I happen to be a big Durer fan too, but then again, I happen to be more partial to the Northern Renaissance than the Italian Renaissance anyway.

  12. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Perspective, shmerspective. Didn’t we already have this argument about the relative superiority of art from different cultures on this blog once before? or am I thinking of someplace else? Anyway, it’s about as useful a discussion as trying to determine the relative merits of air versus light or water. Look at this 16th century Japanese tiger and dragon
    or this Indian chameleon (scroll down and click to enlarge — admittedly somewhat later but too beautiful to leave out)
    or these Ming dynasty hawks
    pr (proving that the 21st century Internet did not invent cute baby animal pictures) this Korean puppy
    Or, for that matter, this

    I couldn’t say which is “better” and I don’t care. I’d much rather argue about memory foam pillows. I love mine!

  13. Eric Says:

    The rabbit has a human expression.

  14. T Says:

    Mrs. Whatsit,

    It’s not about relative superiority of any given style of art. People think it is because they confuse what they like with the concept that it is better than what they don’t like. My point in discussions like this is to try and separate the “like/dislike” from any “better/worse” defense.

    We like what we like, we all have different tastes and there’s no reason to feel the need to defend our personal decision with as vapid an argument as “what I like is better than what you like.” Bach is better than Chopin; violin music is better than clarinet music; Renaissance art is better than Egyptian art. Oh, really? Compare that to: I like Bach more than I do Chopin; I’d rather listen to violins than clarinets; I really enjoy Renaissance art but Egyptian art does nothing for me.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    The Japanese have this creation called the full body pillow.

  16. chuck Says:

    I won’t argue the art, but perspective is interesting mathematically. As mathematics is the beating heart of the divine spirit manifest in creation, I don’t think it out of place to speak of the spiritual superiority of Europe at that time 😉


  17. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    T, I didn’t mean to dismiss your interesting remarks about perspective — I just meant, as I think you did too, that whether perspective is present in particular works isn’t necessarily important in comparing them. And I agree with your comments about better and worse, too –but you may have confused me and a few others with your original use of the word “advanced.” Without more detail, that’s a hard concept to separate from “better/worse,” and therefore also from “like/don’t like.”

    I believe several others were trying to point out that how “advanced” a work of art is depends on what purpose that particular artist, or culture, was striving toward. It wasn’t, as you said, always realism, and the various purposes of art in different cultures make it pretty hard to compare advancement, not because of mushy multi culti relativism, but more on the proverbial level of trying to compare apples and oranges.

    On some level it seems to me that when it comes to comparisons we’re stuck with “like/don’t like,” at least as a reduction of “beautiful/not beautiful” — though art critics and professors may try to pretty up the evaluation with lots of syllables to make it look more erudite. How else can we respond to a work whose purpose we can’t know and can barely imagine, like that Lascaux horse? For myself, I’d rather set comparisons aside and just let myself see what I see through the eyes I happen to have — say, that glowing chameleon glancing malevolently over its shoulder at a butterfly. I guess I’m arguing against cross-cultural comparisons, in the end, or at least saying I don’t care about them.

  18. T Says:

    Mrs. Whatsit,

    I don’t disagree with what you write. In fact, you echo the points that I’ve tried to make. My concern is not that we make the judgement of what we like vs. what we don’t; that is as it should be. My concern is that too many people use that as the basis for applying a better/worse judgement on art itself (I/e., illusionistic art is better than non-illusionistic art)

    Art is a cultural fingerprint. It is the result of numerous forces at work in any given culture. We can recognize many qualifiers with regard to culture; culture A is more/less technological than culture B; Culture A is more/less humanistic; Culture A is more/less warlike and the list goes on.

    But art is the fingerprint of that culture. To say that culture A’s art is “better” is like saying Neoneocon’s fingerprint pattern is better than mine because she has a blog and I don’t.

    My stance is always that one should like whatever it is that they like, but that’s a judgement apart from saying that it’s “better” because it comes from a “better” culture.

    I just want to make people aware of that distinction.

  19. Don Carlos Says:

    T: I find it presumptive to attribute motives to Egyptians thousands of years dead.

  20. T Says:

    Don Carlos,

    You are correct it is presumptive to do so. The ancient Egyptians did not self-consciously write about creative impulses the way we do in the 20th century. Still, our presumptions come not from simple intellectual meanderings. They are derived from a body of information which we have about the culture from numerous sources. From those, we piece together the best possible scenario (Occam’s Razor) of what we believe was going on. The more consistent this scenario is across all aspects fo the culture, the more convinced we are that we have a credible presumption. Circumstantial evidence is not invalid simply because it’s circumstantial.

    Let me provide an example. We can establish a likely evolution for the pyramids. From the original tomb structure (the mastaba) to the later stepped pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara (a pile of mastabas) to at least one later pyramid which collapsed while under construction (wrong angle to the sides, we believe) to the later bent pyramid of Dashur (in which the angle of the sides changed while under contruction) to the true pyramids as we know them at Giza. Now, is it possible there is something we’re missing here? Yes. Is it possible that even the half-baked myths of extra-terrestrials building the pyramids are the truth? Possibly. Is any of this likely? Probably not.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    It all depends on luck and the skill of the analyst. Some people who analyze the past using reason have high accuracies, high intuition, and are right more than wrong. Others are corrupt fakes, con men, and should not be trusted.

    Trying to tell the difference when one is not intimately familiar or involved with the primary sources, is the issue.

  22. T Says:


    Absolutely! As in my own example above, are the pyramids the result of human effort and industriousness or ancient aliens levitating stones into place?

  23. Ymarsakar Says:

    Neither. The universe at large is considered a matrix or simulation run by higher dimensional beings. They can merely create into reality things that exist now, with a complete history.

    So if the entity controlling the simulation we call reality wanted to, it could make a story about aliens making pyramids or about humans. Both are within the realm of the power of Creation.

    This is a scientific version of the old Mythology divinity legends and creation myths.

  24. Ymarsakar Says:

    As for art, each human’s definition and sense of beauty is based upon philosophical foundations.

    By that I mean the basic two foundations of advanced philosophical concepts are metaphysics and epistemology, what is reality and how do we know that what we know is true.

    Based upon what your perception of reality is and how you go about doing the perception process, this forms the “ethics” of a person’s value system, right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark. After ethics comes politics, how do we create systems of government for the organization of human potential and work?

    After politics is thus beauty.

    So beauty is based on one’s politics, one’s politics is based on a personal ethical system, and that ethics is based around metaphysics and epistemology.

    So an argument around which is better, really comes down to a person’s knowledge of philosophy and debate over philosophical concepts. FOr example, the Left considers free will to be evil and totalitarian systems of power to be “good” government. Thus their perception of beauty is to our eyes, warped. They think Christ in a piss jar is beautiful and worthy of artistic praise. They think public defecation in a play is “advanced esthetics”.

    For those that don’t know the philosophy, they can’t argue, so to them it’s not a matter of what is best, just a matter of what is beautiful or sublime. They can tell the good from the bad, because they still have some kind of ethical system, some kind of political system they adhere to, even if unconsciously.

    Just as it is possible to grow a tree of beauty from the roots of epistemology and metaphysics, it’s also possible to reverse engineer a person’s conception of what is beautiful into the root and bark of that person’s real beliefs.

  25. T Says:


    Again, we agree. The concept of better/worse at least in the arts is a very subjective concept.

    I would expand your comment to include the language parallel that I mentioned above. Since art is a language, illusionism is a familiar tongue because that’s the way we see the world. To get beyond the simple spatial appearance of an object requires, as you point out, ” a person’s knowledge of philosophy and debate over philosophical concepts.”

    It’s interesting that you should mention Serrano’s “Piss Christ” because I was thinking of the same example. To return to Dirtyjobsguy’s initial premise that more advanced societies (which are now “capable of” one-point perspective) produce “better” art sets up the following syllogistic logic:

    More advanced societies produce better art.

    Our society is more advanced that the Renaissance.

    Therefore Piss Christ (our art) is better than Michelangelo’s Creation Adam.

    Not a logic to which I, myself, would subscribe although, again as you point out, there are some who do.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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