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While searching for historical reference material for our new Core Design class, I came across the print Man Drawing a Lute, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.