One of the most extraordinary things about this small painting of a piece of turf is its age. It could have been painted yesterday, and yet it dates from the earliest years of the sixteenth century.
Although the subject is timeless and today seems not particularly unusual, at the time of its production in 1503, the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer's detailed study of such a modest subject was rather surprising.
He made this painting just a year after his similarly realistic study of a young hare, and, in doing so, was exploring a piece of nature in meticulous detail, almost certainly to inform his larger scale engravings and works in oils. Aged 31 at the time of this painting, Durer had already produced a significant body of work including historical subjects in landscape settings. This sort of detailed observational study would have helped him to portray these settings more convincingly. His engraving Adam and Eve, which he produced a year later, is a possible example of this, as is The Feast of the Rose Garlands from 1506.
The Great Piece of Turf measures 40.8 x 31.5 cms, so the plants and grasses are depicted a little larger than life size. The specimens include several kinds of meadow grass, together with plantain, speedwell and daisy leaves. Dandelions are about to run to seed, and their slightly pink stems provide interest and contrast just below the heads of the flowering grasses. Hound's-tongue, a member of the Borage family and the feathery-leaved Achillea, commonly known as yarrow, also appear in the foreground. The work is dated just below the plantain.
Durer painted the piece of turf in watercolour and gouache on paper using the finest possible brushes and added details using pen and ink. The colours he used are soft and natural, and include an exceptionally broad variety of greens, just as we see in nature itself. His skills as a draughtsman are evident, and he demonstrated his mastery of watercolour in the layering of colours which, in particular, help to model the fleshy leaves of the daisy and the plantain.
While it may look as though Durer just lay down with his chin at ground level and painted what he saw there at that moment, the composition is in fact very complex, and a diagonal running from the bottom right towards the top left of the image draws the eye around and further into the picture. Durer was a master of compositional techniques and wrote books on the subject. One scholar has even suggested that the composition echoes the architecture of a cathedral, but this is perhaps a little fanciful.
In Great Piece of Turf, Durer depicts each leaf, flower-head and blade of grass accurately, almost in the style of a scientific botanical drawing such as his Peonies, painted in 1500. Despite this, we as viewers, find it easy to believe that this is a chunk of real turf, which he dug up, brought into the studio and set in a dish of water against a plain background. He has brushed some of the soil away from the base of the plants to expose the roots and included them in the drawing, reflected in the muddy base, contributing to the sense of realism.
Durer, the son of a Nuremberg goldsmith, was well educated and studied and maintained an interest in science and engineering as well as art throughout his lifetime. He learned to paint in Nuremberg as an apprentice in the studio of the engraver Michael Wolgemut and later travelled and studied elsewhere in Germany and Italy, often recording his journey in watercolour. He made several similarly detailed studies of nature in later life, both of flowers and of birds and animals.
Albrecht Durer's painting, Great Piece of Turf, hangs in the Albertina Museum in Vienna.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.