Albrecht Dürer’s Human Proportions

Albrecht Dürer, one of the greatest known artists of the Northern European Renaissance, is best known for his beautiful engravings and religious paintings.  Dürer was ahead of his time with his landscape paintings, which were the first of their kind, and the unique self-portraits that he started when he was only 13-years-old. He was born in Nuremburg in 1471 to a goldsmith who taught him a lot about the art of gold, but his father knew that Albrecht would not stay in the family business for long. At the age of fifteen, Dürer apprenticed with Michael Wolgemut, who lived in Nuremburg and specialized in woodcutting. Not only did Dürer and Wolgemut focus on woodcutting, which they financially benefitted from, but they also painted. Dürer was also one of the first great Renaissance artists to study anatomy, writing the book De Symmetria Partium in Rectics Formis Humanorum Corporum, a part of his larger work  Four Books on Human Proportions.

Dürer’s Four Books on Human Proportions was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, Marcus Vitruvius and other significant thinkers.  Dürer’s encounter with Leonardo marks the turning point in his career as a theorist of human proportion.  Even though he was influenced by these thinkers, Dürer’s portrayal of humans of all different shapes and sizes was entirely unique. He displayed women and men of different shapes and sizes in order to show their unique proportions and beauty of form. Before Dürer’s drawings, there was only one absolute form of beauty based on ideal proportions that were determined by Vitruvius.  Dürer thought that there were “many forms of relative beauty…conditioned by the diversity of breeding, vocation and natural disposition.” He aimed to provide a wide range of different body types in order to help him produce the “widest limits of human nature and…all possible kinds of figures: figures “noble” or “rustic,” canine or fox-like, timid or cheerful.” Not only was Dürer aiming to show beauty among many different humans, he also wanted to innovate the science of human proportion.

Dürer is famous for his paintings and woodcuttings, but many do not know about his love for science. There are four books included in his proportion findings, and Dürer probably would have worked more on his theories if he wasn’t commissioned by powerful members of society to create paintings. His book on human proportions was not published until six months after his death.

The P.I. Nixon Library houses a 1st Edition copy in Latin of De Symmetria Partium in Rectics Formis Humanorum Corporum. This book shows the original woodcuts issued by Dürer and displays many different perspectives of the human body. Please stop by to see this legendary geometrical handiwork and learn some information from the past. The Nixon Library also has a facsimile of Les Quartre Lives d’ Albert Durer: Peinctre & Geometrien Tres Excellent, de la Proportion des Parties & Poutraicts des Corps Humains, the French translation of the Four Books on Human Proportions published in 1613.

Here are some wise words from the man himself: “I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.”

If you have any questions about this post or want to see this work for yourself, contact Mellisa DeThorne at or 210 567-2470.

Forever Historic,

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

Information courtesy of Erwin Panofsky’s The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer.

Images courtesy of (link is broken)