“Nature holds the beautiful, for the artist who has the insight to extract it. Thus, beauty lies even in humble, perhaps ugly things, and the ideal, which bypasses or improves on nature, may not be truly beautiful in the end.”
Young Hare, a watercolor and body color work from 1502 painted by Albrecht Dürer, is one of the most recognized and beloved works in the history of art. It is not a still life, nor is it a depiction of a dead animal as seen in many other works from that era. Dürer stepped away from the traditional Renaissance genres and created an extraordinary realistic representation of quite an ordinary animal. The image doesn’t contain symbolism that could have been of any virtue to Dürer or his contemporaries; neither is the hare referencing religious or mythological subject matter. The animal is depicted absolutely independently – a young hare just as it is.
The hare’s body is under painted and then plotted with wide brushstrokes, while individual hairs are executed with a greater variety of tones and delicate brushwork. The texture is so masterfully built up that you can almost feel the texture of the fur. Pay attention to hare’s ears perked up – another detail bringing the animal to life. Finally, the whiskers, claws and the reflection in the animal’s pupil bring the image to completion (or should we say perfection!)
It wasn’t until the 17th century that animals became a recognized genre in painting. In other words, very few artists addressed it until then, as many thought it couldn’t fully convey their artistic vision to public. Dürer was among the first artists to view animals as a subject that is actually worth attention and examination. The natural world and the fundamental truths it disguised captivated him and he probably created many of these images for pure enjoyment and out of curiosity. It was during the age of discoveries, when explorers were returning from distant lands to Europe bringing examples and illustrations of new species, sprucing interest in the world of animals and plants, both exotic and local. Young Hare and Durer’s other numerous paintings, drawings, sketches and prints, all demonstrate appreciation of fine detail and capture the structure and texture of a wide range of animals.
The painting’s German title translates as “Field Hare” and the work is often referred to in English as the Hare or Wild Hare. The Albertina alternates storing and displaying The Hare each decade. and while it is currently on display the Feldhase (German) will soon be removed from view for preservation.
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The water-colour, painted in 1502 when the German master was 31 years old, is now considered one of the most reproduced drawings ever, adorning everything from paper serviettes to mouse pads.
The original is kept in the Albertina museum in Vienna, Austria. "It is certainly the most famous piece we have in the house," says the museum's Dürer expert and chief curator Maria Luise Sternath.
"Dürer's 'Praying Hands' used to have that honour, but over the last 20, 30 years, the hare has crystallized as the firm favourite."
But why do Germans love this big, long-eared hare so much? For a start, one glance shows that it is incredibly well rendered – the texture of its soft fur and the delicate bone structure beneath are almost tangible.
But experts say there is more to it than that – the picture reveals some of the essence of the creature. It's ears are pricked up, signalling that it is ready spring up and tear away. Sternath believes this gives the picture an "incredible fascination."
The picture also has a significant position in the history of art, mainly because the hare is the only focus. "Up until then, representations of animals were always packed into religious images," says Angela Wenzel, author of several books on art. "But now this hare comes along alone. This hare is just a hare."
That's one reason, the experts agree, why the painting still seems so modern – it could just as easily have been painted now.
Many scholars have wondered whether Dürer's painting is a portrait of a specific hare, and there is an apocryphal story that Dürer saved the animal from drowning in a flood, and took it to his studio in Nuremberg. Some have speculated that the window that can be seen reflected in the hare's eye is that of his studio.
The Young Hare's popularity today probably has a lot to do with the fame of its creator, but then again, there could be a simple explanation. "It's just soft. Soft and cuddly," says art historian Wenzel.