The extraordinary thing about Durer's 1503 "Madonna With a Multitude of Animals" is that it was drawn with the same casual grace with which a champion ice skater negotiates complex movements on ice. What would have been difficult, if not impossible, for anyone else becomes a delightful and light hearted demonstration of easy elegance in the hands of such a master.
But Durer was seldom this playful and charming -- or even this informal. He was much more apt to be coolly objective or overwhelmingly impressive. We need only turn to his great watercolor drawings "Young Hare" and "The Great Piece of Turf," executed in 1502 and 1503, respectively, to see what I mean.
These works are serious and objective studies in which every hair of the rabbit and every blade of grass on the turf is precisely and painstakingly delineated, and in which every form perceived by the artist is directly transmitted from eye to brain to hand with no detours for sentiment or emotion.
How differently he approached our drawing of the Madonna with her furry and feathered freinds! Here sentiment is allowed free rein, and we are invited by the artist to share his delight in, and his tender feelings toward, all small creatures of the world.
We are also given a glimpse of what it must have been like to draw as well as he did, for this work is so intimately and lovingly drawn that we enter it with ease and can recapitulate for ourselves the manner in which he drew such things as the lines of the Madonna's hand, the fur of the dog in the corner, the little owl tucked inside a tree, or the puffy foliage of the boughs.
This picture is a veritable treasure-trove of tips on drawing, especially on how to characterize different substances and forms with nothing but a few pen lines, and -- once the ink has dried -- a few delicate washes of color.
Every creature, plant, or person in this work has its own tiny vocabulary of lines and dots which tell us not only what sort of animal, plant, or bird it is, but, also, precisely how its texture looks and feels. The lines Durer used to depict the fox are quite different from those used for the little dog.But that's not all, for he also varied the amount of pressure exerted on his pen: very slight and gentle for the fox, heavier and firmer for the dog. The fox, as a matter of fact, appears almost to have been drawn as a caress.
By allowing our eyes and sensibilities to roam over the surface of this drawing, we should be able to perceive the kind of linear distillation which lies at the heart of Durer's genuis for drawing: the open, crisp, sweeping lines used for the drapery (and the twisting, nervous ones used for its folds and wrinkles), the ebullient, curvilinear lines for the plants and grasses, the cramped, jerky lines for the crab, the flat, no-nonsense lines for the fence and buildings. Plus, of course, the slight linear variations, the tiny articulations of the idiosyncratic and the accidental which appear throughout the composition.
What makes it all work, of course, is his lightness of touch and gentle good humor. When we consider how much has been crowded into this composition, we can only marvel at hoe beautifully it all comes together. And this is true even though it is virtually a pictorial catalog of things he had recorded elsewhere in sketches and drawings from life.
For Durer was a prodigious recorder of the world around him. His curiosity about life was almost as great and detailed as Leonardo's and, like that great Italian, he also filled his sketch and notebooks with all things observed and pondered over. These then would find their way into his paintings and prints, and, occasionally, into more complex and detailed drawings and watercolors like this one.
It's a beautiful picture. Even the delicate watercolor washes -- mostly soft greens, yellows, and browns, with a few touches of blue and red -- contribute to its overall effect of cheerful liveliness.
But we mustn't be fooled. This, after all, is a composition by Albrecht Durer, and he wasn't the sort of artist to spend this much time and care on a picture unless it had a deeper meaning.
The clearest clue to what that might be is the fact that the fox in the foreground, tied as it is to a stump, is no longer wild. It has been tamed, and thus joins the rest of Durer's animal and plant world in enjoying the harmony and peace brought about by the presence of the infant Jesus.
With this in mind, everything else falls into place, from the angel in the background announcing Jesus' birth, to the tiniest insect and blade of grass living out its part of the divine plan.
From top to bottom, and over the entire surface of the drawing, Durer celebrates the good life within the largest possible religious context: the one that doesn't exclude any living thing -- no matter how small and seemingly insignificant -- from universal brotherhood.