In every endeavor there are standards and benchmarks. There are those that far surpass the ordinary; the average, even going beyond the superlative. A level of excellence, technical proficiency and mystery is reached that can only be called mastery. The masterpiece is the physical incarnation and product of such a person we call “A Master”. Albrecht Durer is without argument among the few so blessed. The German born artist has been dubbed “The Leonardo of the North.”The incredible piece descriptively titled “The Hare” is one among the many masterpieces by his hand. A work in many ways simple; a study of a hare, a common animal. In this depiction by Durer the ordinary, the common place is brilliantly, extraordinarily uncommon. We as viewers are able to see the fullness and beauty of the drawing of a creature that could be a science text book rendering. It goes beyond mere record of detail to the brink of life itself. Durer’s water color of a hare exists within nature; it is a wonder.
In his time Durer created paintings, drawings and among his still popular works are his etchings. They are definite reflections of the standards of his times; biblical, spiritual, heroic and often mystical. The standards set by these works are each an “Everest” of a sort. Yet here are contemporary artists that are very much the peers of the “Old Masters.”
There are artist’s today that rival and are setting their personal extraordinary standards. Artists who are in their way daring, driven and committed to the excellence found in the natural world. Two American artists thriving now are Jamie Wyeth and Walton Ford. They each are working almost exclusively from the natural world but possessing distinctive, original voices.
Jamie Wyeth is inspired almost exclusively from his local environment and the surroundings of his much beloved Chadds Ford Pennsylvania. The rocks, the grass, buildings, buoys and even the people he knows inhabit his heart, mind, soul and canvases. Like the masters of centuries past; including Durer, he has the scientist’s eye and the poet’s heart. His works are richly done expressions of elegance found in what to others would be the mundane. The ravens that dominate the birds of his home and hungry pigs are displayed equally; gloriously on his canvases. It was actually his “Portrait of a Pig” that brought Wyeth into prominence. “The Islander” is the title of his master work featuring an old seemingly knowing ram. The ram is gazing outward toward the sea with his lush fleece seemingly to blow in the wind. It is nothing less than spectacular.
The imagination and brushes of Walton Ford are much occupied with rewriting the book of natural history. His large, life sized watercolors are from an ardent observers view with a somewhat peculiar perspective. His works include a raging rhino in it’s last full moment of life going down in a sinking ship. Passenger pigeons breaking a limb under the sheer weight of their massive numbers and disgusting acts is another Ford master work. A personal favorite I have of ford’s is his dynamic portrait of an Aurochs Bull; an extinct European breed. Aurochs can be found in cave paintings and are still a symbol for many European countries and communities. The Aurochs were fierce, combative animals and Ford shows all the power and brutal force; the majesty the beast must have commanded. I had the absolute pleasure of viewing this portrait executed by Ford in triptych form at the Museum of American Art in DC. The scale alone is impressive 8’ x 13’ for a style of art usually seen as illustration or in print reproduction is amazingly impressive. The attention to detail, the perspective and the drama of the work is phenomenal and rarely captured in any medium.
When we think of Durer as a lasting “Master” for the ages his legacy is pretty much assured. He has sustained for about five centuries. As for the longevity of the contemporary worlds Wyeth and Ford…we’ll see; as we await their next great works.