The pursuit of the “perfect” female body was as much a preoccupation in Renaissance Europe as it is today. Like the filtered photographs that we encounter daily in magazines and social media posts, images of idealized women in various stages of undress proliferated during the 15th and 16th centuries. Conceptions of feminine beauty, however, were not monolithic and varied greatly from artist to artist. Nowhere does this diversity manifest itself more plainly than in the work of Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, two of the most prominent artists of the Northern Renaissance. The exhibition Perfectly Imperfect: Cranach, Dürer and the Renaissance Nude on view at The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art provides a focused look at how these two artists used the nude as a vehicle for creative expression and a demonstration of artistic skill.
The human form became a central preoccupation of artistic production and thought during the Renaissance. Fueled by a renewed appreciation of classical antiquity and a growing interest in investigating the natural world, artists sought to depict the human body in a convincingly realistic manner.
The goal, however, was to achieve an ideal of beauty that surpassed that of any living being. Albrecht Dürer was one of the first artists on either side of the Alps to experiment with constructing the female form using a system of mathematical measurements. The exhibition includes a selection of engraving from the museum’s permanent collection to illustrate his long-standing fascination with the construction and proportion of the human figure. Among the highlights is Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, whose robust form follows the proportions laid out by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (FIG. 1). Also on view, courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology, is a 1557 reprint of his famous treatise Four Books on Human Proportion (FIG. 2). The manuscript demonstrates how Dürer abandoned his earlier attempts to illustrate a single standard of beauty and developed a formula for determining the proportions of a wide range of figural types.
Lucas Cranach the Elder shared Dürer’s interest in classical subject matter and produced innumerable paintings of seductive nudes drawn from ancient mythology. However, he rejected his contemporary’s pursuit of anatomical correctness and ideal proportions in favor of a distinctive figural style. Unnaturally elongated with few individualized features, his many Venuses and other legendary heroines appealed to his aristocratic and humanist patrons in Wittenberg, where he was employed as court painter for the electors of Saxony. The exhibition brings together two magnificent examples of Cranach’s female nudes: the Nelson-Atkin’s The Three Graces (FIG. 3) and The Judgement of Paris (FIG. 4), on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum. Both paintings depict the female figure from multiple points of view, allowing Cranach to demonstrate his mastery of the three-dimensional figure.
Scheduled to run through January 31, 2021, the exhibition will provide Kansas City visitors with a unique opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of these two important artists of the German Renaissance and their innovative approaches to the female form. Visitors will be invited to view a slide show featuring interpretations of The Three Graces by contemporary artists who are questioning traditional ideals of European beauty. The human figure remains a popular subject for artists in the 21st century, and guests to the Nelson-Atkins are invited to contrast this Renaissance view of the human figure with a 21st-century view. A contemporary gallery in the Bloch Building features works from the 1960s to today that build on this enduring tradition: artists using the human figure to convey ideas about society, history, emotions, and identity.
–By Rima Girnius, PhD, Associate Curator European Painting and Sculpture