Did Albrecht Duerer get it wrong? A surprise discovery in one of his prints.


Link zur Deutschen Version
Also see blog: Dürer drew a man not a women – misinterpretations about the woodcut ‘Draughtsman drawing a reclining women’.

Visual research using Albrecht Dürer’s perspective illustration in the print of his woodcut Man drawing a lute 1525.

The following is the outcome of ‘teaching-led research’ and about the initial visual research project stimulated by a surprise discovery of an error in one of Albrecht Dürer’s illustration. This discovery was a result of teaching perspective drawing as part of the Design Arts Foundation program.
While searching for historical reference material for our new Core Design class, I came across the print Man Drawing a Lute, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.

Man drawing a Lute AD 1525

Little did I know then, that his well-known image would lead me into a web and literature search and leave me with an ever greater admiration for this master of the northern Renaissance. The discovery and the outcomes of the research are documented here in a series of images.

Albrecht Dürer, the well-known German printmaker was born in 1471 in Nuremberg a significant centre of the crafts at the time.

duerer-selbstbildnis.jpg

He was well educated and acquainted with many influential contemporaries. Journeys to Italy and the Netherlands made him a cosmopolitan of his time. It was during his second visit to Italy in 1506, that he learned about the secret art of perspective, (a, Strauss 1977).

He was famous for his engravings, wood cuts, paintings and his publications amongst them The Painters Manual.

durer-manual-cover-512.jpg

This manual comprises four books; it is in the fourth book in the chapter about the theory of perspective where one can find the print Man Drawing a Lute. Dürer’s interest in suggesting practical solutions to capture subtle perspective distortions is evident through his inventions. In the 1525 edition of this manual, Dürer shows two apparatuses to create a perspectively correct drawing. In 1538, ten years after his death, when this Manual was republished, he had added three more contraptions. It is his reputation as an artist, his interest in geometry and inventing that lets him stand as equal next to Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

As part of teaching perspective drawing I used Albrecht Dürer’s image with the Lute as it illustrates clearly the concept of the picture plane. To demonstrate the relationship between the image size and the distance of the picture plane to the viewpoint (eyepoint) I devised a contemporary version of Dürer’s system.

student-durer-laser-512.jpg

Two upright windowpanes were placed in front of each other, about a meter apart, with an object placed so it could be observed looking through both windows at the same time. A laser pointer fixed on a tripod acted as the eyepoint and was positioned in such a way, that the laser beam would point to the object shining through both image planes. If activated a red dot became visible on the object and simultaneously on both planes. Students adjusted this laser beam to scan major features of the object point-by-point and marked each point on the two transparent windows. As expected both image planes showed the same pattern of marks, one on each glass pane, but they were different in size. Both glass plates with the point scatters were then photocopied and given to the students to draw on. By connecting the right dots on each photocopy two perspectively correct images in different sizes of the scanned object appeared.

laser-dot-drawing-Riedelbauch_512.jpg

As a result of this exercise with my students, I was aware of the effect the distance of the picture plane to the eye point has on the resulting image size. While contemplating Albrecht Dürer’s image, I got suspicious about the large size of the lute sketched on the canvas in his illustration. Loading a digital version of this image into Photoshop provided all the tools needed to visually manipulate its elements. After copying and isolating the canvas onto a new layer, I then perspectively distorted it and I placed the canvas with the lute back into the frame.

Durer_Man_Drawing_A_Lute_Riedelbauch_fig07.jpg

The line connecting the probe to the eyepoint still correctly connects the lute through the corresponding point on the canvas to the eyepoint. However if one chooses any other feature of the lute, eg where the neck of the instrument touches the table, and connect its position with the eyepoint, one will see that it does not match with the point in Dürer’s lute on the canvas in the frame.

Durer_Man_Drawing_A_Lute_Riedelbauch_fig09.jpg

His drawing of the lute is much too large. By drawing a line from the neck of the lute through the corresponding location on the canvas it does not converge with the first line, in other words the lines do not have a common eyepoint.I was intrigued that Dürer, who was a master of the centre- or one-point perspective, the only perspective system known at his time, would make such a mistake. Unbelievable that the very image used to illustrate concepts of perspective drawing would fail to apply its own rules. I was further surprised that I could not find any reference to his error in this well-known image.

What led Dürer to allow this mistake to be printed? Was the frame for the canvas placed to the far right to make space for the prominent figure on the left – who I thought was the master, while the assistant marking the position of the string in the frame had to put up with working in a confined space? I began to believe that it was a sign of Dürer’s vanity, as he did not miss any opportunity to place his initials prominently in his imagery, almost as we use logos today. In the painting for the ‘Landauer Altar’, commonly referred to as ‘All Saints’ from 1511, he even added a miniature self-portrait next to his logo in the lower right corner.

riedelbauch_fig10.jpg

However, the master himself proved me wrong. In the translated version of The Painters Manual by Walter Strauss (b, Strauss, 1977), Dürer provides explanations about his second perspective apparatus. He advices: ‘Now proceed as follows. Place a lute or another object to your liking as far from the frame as you wish, but so that it will not move while you are using it. Have your assistant then move the pointer…’. This meant that the man on the right was in fact the painter and not the assistant as I had wrongly assumed.

If the drawing of the lute, which seemingly shows a true point pattern of the instrument, was too large for the frame in its current position one can ask: ‘Where would the frame need to be shifted to, to make Dürer’s woodcut right?’ As the student’s experiment had demonstrated, the closer the picture-plane – the frame with the canvas – is to the object, the larger the object will be depicted. For Dürer’s image this would mean that the frame has to move to the left nearer to the lute. Inspecting Dürer’s print closely, I noticed that the hand of the assistant who is holding the edge of the opened canvas had an odd shape and the stretched arm was rather resting then supporting this fragile contraption. Again with the help of digital image manipulation I isolated and moved elements of the image. First I focused on three reference points on the canvas; the one Dürer used himself at the far end of the Lute, one at the end of the fingerboard and one where the neck rests on the table. Then I identified these points on the Lute itself and connected them with straight lines to the eyepoint.

Durer_Man_Drawing_A_Lute_Riedelbauch_fig11.jpg

Then I scaled, moved and perspectively distorted the frame in a way that it would meet the hand of the assistant. After this the canvas with the three points marked was also scaled, moved and perspectively distorted to fit back into the frame in its new position. As the frame has moved into the centre of the image, the canvas can be seen only side-on, it appears almost as a line.

Durer_Man_Drawing_A_Lute_Riedelbauch_fig12.jpg

However all the reference points and the projected lines suddenly match up. This proves in my view that Dürer had initially planned to place the frame in the centre of his Illustration. However, placing the frame in the centre would have made it impossible to show how to mark the position of the string connected to the assistance’s pointer within the frame and therefore diminished the clarity of the principle he wanted to illustrate.

In conclusion, if my assumption is right, that Albrecht Dürer’s decision to sacrifice the true construction within his print for the sake of a clear illustration of the principle was deliberate, I have great respect for this bold approach. It successfully illustrated in all these years some of the principles of creating a perspective drawing. He crafted this woodprint with such confidence, that it took almost five hundred years and the advent of easy to use image manipulation software to reveal its fault. Now that I am aware of its error, this print showing a ‘Man Drawing a Lute’, has even more to offer, as it tells a story about the limitations of the one point perspective and plays with the picture elements and its perceived effects.

This discovery was an immediate result of my teaching involvement with the Bachelor of Design Arts core program; it will have a direct effect on development of content for this course in the future and will stimulate further ‘teaching-led research’.

In presenting this discovery I did at no time intended to criticise or otherwise belittle this great master of the Renaissance, but even in this regard Dürer comes to my aid. In one of several drafts for the introduction of a projected book he writes (c, Strauss, 1977): ‘But with God’s help, I want to publish the little that I have learned even at the risk of being ridiculed. I shall not mind.’

Strauss W. (1977). (a), The literary remains of Albrecht Dürer. Translation of and comments to The Painter’s Manual by Dürer A. (1525) Page 7. New York. Abaris Books.Strauss W. (1977). (b), The literary remains of Albrecht Dürer. Translation of and comments to The Painter’s Manual by Dürer A. (1525) Page 391. New York. Abaris Books.Strauss W. (1977). (c), The literary remains of Albrecht Dürer. Translation of and comments to The Painter’s Manual by Dürer A. (1525) Page 8. New York. Abaris Books.

These initial outcomes had been presented at Art and Authenticity at the Australian National University in November 2006, Canberra and at the ACUADS conference in September 2006, Melbourne.

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19 Responses to “Did Albrecht Duerer get it wrong? A surprise discovery in one of his prints.”


  1. 1 Jerry 14/06/2007 at 6:05 PM

    Thank you for a stimulating paper – truly fascinating. If correct, then Durer is shown to have sacrificed artistic rigor for pedagogical rigor – which is indeed admirable and a mark of his standing as an artist.

    I wonder about this though. I could be reading your paper wrongly, but I read the image as the assistant moving the canvas from the frame, not the other way round as you seem to be suggesting. The upright frame (edge-on to the viewer) should not be moved to the assistant’s hand, but rather the canvas swung back into the upright frame, at which point the convergence lines would seem to work. Printing the non-distorted image from http://www.usc.edu/schools/annenberg/asc/projects/comm544/library/images/626bg.jpg
    and drawing in the sight-lines I then used a square to line up the image as though in the frame. The result is indeed a distortion of the lute as the one pictured shows none of the foreshortening that would be apparent if the putative sketched lute were indeed drawn in the frame. The peg box on the sketched lute is too long. So he has indeed broken his own rule. In fact you are right that the convergence actually doesn’t work for this drawing – even if you bring the upright frame forward to just beyond the assistant’s hand – because the drawn peg box would still be too long compared with the actual lute on the table.

    Thanks again for a stimulating discussion.

    Best regards
    Jerry Everard

  2. 2 virtualterritory 14/06/2007 at 11:58 PM

    Dear Jerry,

    Thank you for your response.
    I share your admiration of Dürer’s step, if indeed my theory proves to be right.

    About the point where you suspect to misread my paper: I see that Dürer suggests to move the canvas back into the frame – the hinges where the frame is attached to the frame are visible – after the ‘master’ on the right has marked the position where the string connecting to the pointer goes through the frame. Once the canvas is swung back the position is then recorded as a point by crossing two wires.
    In my paper in the fifth image I simulate how the canvas would look like if swung back into the frame – in this and the following images the canvas appears twice, in its original position and in the frame. You could argue that the canvas is not transparent and therefore we would not see the point drawing in this position. However the points would sit just on the other side of this thin canvas, we could assume the points were little holes like needle pricks or would have bled through the canvas, then we would get exactly the simulated situation.

    The canvas in the frame is distorted as we see it almost side on with the point drawing of the lute still recognizable. (I can send you an image with a higher resolution)
    That’s when things do not line up if you try to connect features of the lute to the eye point on the wall. In the sixth image you can see the point drawing of the lute does only match at one point, the one Dürer used, it’s the point from the pointer through the corresponding point on the distorted canvas to the eyepoint.

    However if you consider as an independent situation that you would take the frame with the canvas in it and move it to the middle of Dürer’s print so it would connect with the assistance left hand (you also have to scale it down a little for this action) as illustrated in the ninth, the last image, then every reference point lines up.

    The moving and scaling of the frame with the canvas in it does not compromise the proportional integrity of this constellation. I have in mind to make a 3D model of this whole setting and be then able look at the whole setting from any angle, but I do not seem to get the time for this soon.

    I would be interested to see how you have come to your conclusions, do you have any images of it, or could send me a scan of it?

    With regards

    Gilbert

  3. 3 Jerry 15/06/2007 at 9:42 AM

    Hi Gilbert
    Thank you for the clarification. I agree that if you move the frame forward – as you suggest Durer may have intended – then indeed the image lines up really only with the one line that Durer himself put in, although most of the rest of the body also would be a close if not a precise fit. My problem is with the peg-box of the instrument – and the fact that that portion of the instrument would need to be scaled down to fit the current frame. Yes if you move the frame forward the whole putative drawing would need to be scaled down as the lines of convergence would be closer together – assuming the eye-line did not change in the process. I shall email separately a photo of the image I used showing the lines I put in to determine the scale of the lute’s peg-box between the ‘real’ and the putative drawing.

    Thank you again for a stimulating discussion – I had not previously considered that Durer would have deliberately distorted the drawing for pedagogical purposes. That is an excellent observation on your part.

    Best regards
    Jerry

  4. 4 Jenny 16/06/2007 at 12:20 AM

    I came to your web site from SharonB’s blog and find it interesting that this is the second article on Durer that I have read this morning — this one an analysis of his art work and experiment in perspective, the other an essay on how we see and esperience art in Pictures of Nothing by Kirk Varnedoe. It is interesting how picking up random books off of the library new book shelf and wandering around the web following interesting links both brought me to different discussions of the same engraving.

    Jenny

  5. 5 virtualterritory 16/06/2007 at 8:53 AM

    Dear Jenny,

    thank you for your lines, some times there are certain things just ‘in the air’, like thinking of someone and then suddenly running into them.

    could you please point me to the link to the text about Durer you mention in your comment.

    Best, Gilbert

  6. 6 Jenny 18/06/2007 at 12:30 PM

    Gilbert —

    Here are two links to the book, the information about Durer was in the first or second lecture.

    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8234.html

    Jenny

  7. 7 virtualterritory 18/06/2007 at 3:02 PM

    Thank you Jenny, I followed the links and look forward to have a read once I will get it.
    Gilbert

  8. 8 Ben 20/08/2007 at 10:32 AM

    Very interesting article, a topic that could spark debate or discussion in the classroom.. It seems Dürer has chosen to use his “artistic licenses” and alter the image to better teach than to be exact, as he shows in many of his works. Reading the article I also find your approach to teaching perspective very interesting. I have been teaching perspective to high school and was looking to teach it in a different light, by focusing on the science point of view more than the artistic view. I was curious on the age group you were working with when you set up the experiment, the amount of time it took, and success of the lesson. This lesson experiment would be great for one point if you give me any leads for two point or three point experiment that would be wonderful.

    Thank you for the inspiration and any help you can give.

    Ben Kessler

  9. 9 virtualterritory 26/08/2007 at 10:24 PM

    Dear Ben,

    Thank you for your comments. I am very certain that Albrecht Duerer used his command over drawing and the understanding of perspective at his time as well as some ‘artistic license’ to show the principle rather then a true representation of the picture plane.
    As I teach this course to university students, the age group is rather wide from their early twenties to mature age students. Over about ten 5hr sessions I try to build up the skills and understanding with the student group to master the construction of properly developed two-point perspective drawings.
    Starting form orthographic to axonometric projection together with building models of the drawn objects we then explore other elements of the perspective drawing like the cone-of-vision and the picture plane and then put them all together. The laser exercise is to demonstrate the relation of the distance of the picture plane to the view or eye-point as described above.
    This experiment is setup in minutes, I have two frames for clamping on A3 overhead transparencies (the picture planes) and a little slide-show pointing laser that is mounted to a camera tripod with a swivel head (the eye point). Once all elements are aligned and positioned, the frames and the tripod are weight down by street pavers (the high tech element).
    Students like this ‘interactive’ session as it engages the new – the laser – to illustrate a very old principle. A colleague of mine uses the ‘Duerer scope’ in her class as well.

    The point pattern as a result of tracing an object with the laser behind the picture plane is not a one or two point perspective rather it shows a true perspective as our eyes would perceive it. Akin to the film plane in an old fashioned camera however it would show increasing distortion towards the outer edges of the picture plane. This distortions would increase with the size of the picture plane. The ideal picture plane would be spherical guaranteeing an equal distance from the eye point like the retina behind the lenses in our eyes.

    I hope these lines answer your questions.

  10. 10 David T 16/12/2009 at 8:34 AM

    I think the drawing is what it is on the face of it, I don’t think Durer deliberately distorted it.
    Whether the lute is too fat or not can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
    As to who is the “artist” of the two figures, there is no way to know, but they could both be Durer painted at different stages of life. The one on the left looks like the young Durer, on the right the famous Melancholia.

  11. 11 Nellie Noel 26/05/2010 at 9:53 AM

    If only more people could hear this..

  12. 12 Lana 23/06/2010 at 9:13 AM

    Very interesting, you can find some of his works at artfortune .

  13. 13 nlw0 12/04/2012 at 1:30 AM

    Great work, that was a very interesting read.

  14. 14 Jordanka 05/12/2012 at 10:38 PM

    I get repeatedly impressed by the genius of the men! Thank you for sharing this interesting discovery with us!


  1. 1 Ist Albrecht Dürer ein Fehler unterlaufen? Eine überraschende Entdeckung in seinem Holzschnitt ‘Der Zeichner der Laute’ « virtualterritory Trackback on 02/06/2007 at 1:42 PM
  2. 2 Further to Albrecht Dürer’s 1525 woodcut ‘Man drawing a Lute’ (The Draughtsman of the Lute) « virtualterritory Trackback on 26/06/2007 at 10:29 AM
  3. 3 A page out of Dürer’s own copy of the Painters Manual « virtualterritory Trackback on 02/10/2008 at 2:00 PM
  4. 4 I wish I had known about this site earlier. The “Rare Book Room”. « virtualterritory Trackback on 17/10/2008 at 7:40 PM
  5. 5 Constellation week two 3/10/13 | CSAD Maker~ Jade Sims Trackback on 06/02/2014 at 1:00 AM

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