“He can paint anything,” Erasmus of Rotterdam said of Albrecht Dürer, the painter, printmaker, typographer, inventor, and art theorist who brought the High Renaissance from the South to the North. “Even things one cannot paint—fire, sun rays, thunder, electric storms, lightning, and banks of fog … the whole human soul as revealed in the body’s form, and almost even the voice itself.”
This was not hyperbole. In Dürer’s exquisitely meticulous watercolor from 1503, The Great Piece of Turf, our otherworldly viewpoint is that of a tiny animal or insect on a swampy bit of earth, beneath towering grasses, leaves, and dandelions. While looking at Dürer’s many studies of praying hands, you can almost hear the angels sing. And long before Rembrandt, Dürer—who was both beautiful and vain—pioneered the genre of the psychological self-portrait. His earliest known drawing, a silverpoint self-portrait at age 13—with flowing locks, confident eyes, and a lengthy index finger—rivals drawings by fellow Renaissance men Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, suggesting that among the original Fab Four, Dürer was the cute one.