Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471–1528
Engraving on laid paper
Sheet (partially trimmed within platemark): 13 15/16 × 10 3/8 in. (35.4 × 26.4 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Learning from Leonardo
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Before his conversion to Christianity, Saint Eustace was a Roman general named Placidus. One day while hunting, he tracked a white stag that climbed onto a high rock. Looking up at the beast, Placidus saw an image of the crucified Christ between the animal’s horns. Placidus decided at that moment to convert to Christianity. The next day, Placidus, his wife, and children were baptized and he took the name Eustace.
Albrecht Dürer depicts Eustace in fifteenth-century hunter’s garb. His horse stands nearby and his hunting dogs rest in the foreground. In the background, a German castle and town sit on a hill. Eustace is supposedly drawn in the likeness of Emperor Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor and Dürer’s patron.
In Saint Eustace, Dürer’s largest print, the artist depicts nature realistically, with many carefully observed details. The dog, horse, and deer, as well as the foliage, water, stone, and pebbles, are meticulously presented so that the print becomes a tapestry of nature studies. The attention to perspective is a reminder of Dürer’s studies of Italian Renaissance art, while the detailed landscape background recalls 15th century Flemish paintings. Dürer explores a range of tones possible within the medium of engraving and creates atmospheric perspective by contrasting darker lines in the foreground with lighter areas that depict the distant objects. For additional information about the Renaissance use of perspective, see the Lesson Plan for The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Engraving evolved in the fifteenth century from the metalsmith’s technique of carving designs on metal. The image is cut into a copper plate with a burin, a sharp tool with a v-shaped edge. Lines can be made thinner or thicker by tilting the burin while incising the line. Once the image is completed, the plate is inked, then wiped with a cloth to remove ink from the surface and push ink into the engraved grooves. When the plate and dampened paper are run between the two rollers of a printing press, the pressure forces the remaining ink out of the grooves of the plate and onto the paper.
Albrecht Dürer, one of the first geniuses of printmaking, learned engraving in his father’s goldsmith studio. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a painter and designer of woodcuts. After learning the artistic traditions of Germany and Flanders (modern Belgium), Dürer visited Venice in 1494-95 and again in 1505-7, gaining first-hand knowledge of Italian Renaissance art. Dürer devoted much of the rest of his career to creating monumental and natural figures moving within a convincing three-dimensional space. He spent the last years of his life editing his writings on art. His book on proportion was published the year after his death.
What do you notice about this artwork? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
Consider the four dogs in the foreground. How does the artist portray them in different positions? What can you say about the other animals and the way that they are portrayed from the foreground to the background?
What is odd about the central figure? What do you notice about perspective in general? Notice the lack of a horizon line and the off-kilter depth perception.
How does the large-scale size of the shell allow the viewers to focus on the object itself?
Consider the black and white color scheme. What does this tell you about the type of artwork we are dealing with? How would this artwork be different if it was in color?
Can you spot another figure in this composition? Where and who is he/she?
Consider the relationship between the different animals. What do meaning do you think their placement in the work has?
The artist gives an incredibly detailed rendition of this scene. What does that tell you about the type of artwork this could be? Where in the composition do you especially see the precision? This artist was famous in his time and widely copied for his great artistic skill.
This is an engraving and its title is Saint Eustace. Is Saint Eustace portrayed in the scene? Where? Why do you think the artist portrays him in 15th century clothing?
Can you spot the figure of Christ in the background? If you look closer, what is strange about this figure? Do you know of other examples where Christ appears as (part of) an animal?
According to legend, a Roman general named Placidus was hunting when Christ appeared to him as a white stag with a radiant crucifix between its antlers. This vision prompted Placidus to convert to Christianity.
Consider the landscape in the background. Is it realistic? The legend that this scene refers to was set in Roman times. Does the landscape look Roman to you? What does it remind you of?
The artist was one of the first in his time to achieve a certain celebrity status. This was mostly because of the medium of engraving, allowing for prints that could be multiplied and spread widely. Do you think the skill displayed in this work justifies the artist’s fame? Why?
Connecting to the Classroom
• Study Saint Eustace by Dürer. What details has the artist included to identify the plants and animals?
• Compare and contrast the ways in which the three artists have depicted details of plants, animals, and people. Which artist (or artists) was most concerned with a realistic depiction of nature? Which artist was least concerned? Discuss how each approach related to the subject of the work.
• An artist that was very concerned with realistic depictions of nature was Leonardo de Vinci. If possible, display some of his sketches and compare his style to the works of art.
• Research the life of Leonardo da Vinci and his accomplishments as a scientist. Find examples of his drawings of people, animals, and nature. Discuss records of his ideas and observations.
• Discuss why it is important for scientists and artists to record observations and experiment with new ideas.
• Select a science lesson or experiment in which students can develop observation skills. Have each student keep a notebook of sketches and words to document the project.
• Compare the sketched observations with the written notes. What are the advantages of each?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.