Artists and scientists were better pals in ‘ole Europe

The Rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Artists were kind of a big deal in early modern Europe (c. 16th century). Apparently, they were vital in the scientific studies of astronomy, anatomy, natural history, and geography. There is a large collection of resources on display at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art (Northwestern University), running from January 17-April 8. The exhibition, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, features works from artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, Hendrick Goltzius, and Jacques de Gheyn. Visit the museum’s website for more info!

According to a review on the show’s published collection:
“An unusual collaboration among distinguished art historians and historians of science, this book demonstrates how printmakers of the Northern Renaissance, far from merely illustrating the ideas of others, contributed to scientific investigations of their time. Hans Holbein, for instance, worked with cosmographers and instrument makers on some of the earliest sundial manuals published; Albrecht Dürer produced the first printed maps of the constellations, which astronomers copied for over a century; and Hendrick Goltzius’s depiction of the muscle-bound Hercules served as a study aid for students of anatomy. ”

Increasingly in the 1500s, scientific inquiries resorted more and more to direct observation in order to gather data. Scientists and artists alike became curious about the natural world, and published catalogues, articles, maps, etc., both in collaboration and independently.

Susan Dackerman, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, who curated this show, said that “[with] this exhibition, we really wanted to explore the important role artists played in scientific inquiry of the 16th century…One of the things artists did at that time was help theorists visualize kinds of knowledge, and by helping them visualize it, they actually helped them in many cases conceptualize it as well.” (article source)

Science, even today, depends upon observation and what one decides to observe. It makes sense, therefore, that in the years of our history when technology was scarce, the meticulous eyes of an artist came in handy. Practice makes perfect, after all. Not only in strength of sight but these artists were surely valued for strong technique and their ability to transfer observations onto the page. We see in many artist’s journals, whether or not they created works for scientists, a search for truth in their visual reality. Understanding the relationships in Nature can allow the artist to distinguish between the important and unimportant details. Many of these relationships or “rules” of Nature are visually present, though not everyone has the open mind and sharp eyes to see them.

In the end, science and art diverge at several points in their process. This exhibition seems to celebrate the first few steps: curiosity about life and te necessity of intense observation. Further along (and I’d love to study this sometime) is the “end” of the process: is it not a similar feeling, to stand in a lab looking into the abyss of an anomaly and to stand in front of a piano willing the right music to come forth? I think Einstein has something to say about that.

p.s. I included a few pictures of  drawings from around that time.

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