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Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve

Met curator Freyda Spira on advertising in Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve, 1504.

Throughout his life, Dürer was in thrall to the idea that the perfect human form corresponded to a system of proportion and measurements and could be generated by using such a system. Near the end of his life, he wrote several books codifying his theories, including the Underweysung der Messung (Manual of measurement), published in 1525, and Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion (Four books of human proportion), published in 1528 just after his death. Dürer's fascination with ideal form is manifest in Adam and Eve. The first man and woman are shown in nearly symmetrical idealized poses: each with the weight on one leg, the other leg bent, and each with one arm angled slightly upward from the elbow and somewhat away from the body. The figure of Adam is reminiscent of the Hellenistic Apollo Belvedere, excavated in Italy late in the fifteenth century. The first engravings of the sculpture were not made until well after 1504, but Dürer must have seen a drawing of it. Dürer was a complete master of engraving by 1504: human and snake skin, animal fur, and tree bark and leaves are rendered distinctively. The branch Adam holds is of the mountain ash, the Tree of Life, while the fig, of which Eve has broken off a branch, is from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. Four of the animals represent the medieval idea of the four temperaments: the cat is choleric, the rabbit sanguine, the ox phlegmatic, and the elk melancholic.

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Video transcript

When you first see this print you immediately recognize it as Adam and Eve. They’re set within a sort of Eden, although instead of a garden, Albrecht Dürer made it a thick forest set out against cliffs, sort of an alpine landscape. Dürer was a very conscientious artist, and he was one of the first to really study nature: the details of the human body, of trees, of animals. Eve is reaching for the Tree of Knowledge, which is a fig tree, actually, which the snake is wound around. You get caught up in all of the details: the ibex teetering on the top of the cliff, the parrot, the ox and the cat and the mouse and the rabbit. And as you follow Adam’s arm clutching onto an ash tree, you see that there’s a large plaque in Latin, which means, “Albrecht Dürer from Nuremberg made this in 1504.” And you begin to understand that Dürer’s not really telling you the story of Adam and Eve, but this is an advertisement that Dürer has created to show off his skills as an artist. When we come into the Museum we see it in a beautiful mat, but when you see it outside of the frame, you begin to understand what it was originally, which was a commodity. Dürer employed merchants to sell this far and wide across Europe, and it made its way even to India. Unlike a painting, it wasn’t a static thing, it moved in society. And Dürer really wanted to announce to people across cultures and boundaries that he was a German artist of the Renaissance and this is what he could do. I once tried to make an engraving and I couldn’t even make one line. It takes an incredible amount of strength and skill. There are thousands and thousands of lines that go into these dark areas. He spent four years working on this print, four years trying to work out how each segment of the body was portioned out in exact mathematic formula. He makes Adam this strapping figure based on the Apollo Belvedere, part of a Renaissance vocabulary. Eve is more of a medieval ideal of women who have childbearing hips and small breasts, and this is his tradition that he’s still working out. Prints interest me because they circulate in society. This was the first print I had seen in the flesh, and for me it was an aha moment that art works through time. I can look at this and Albrecht Dürer through the centuries is speaking to me and telling me how to read his own image.