Defining Beauty: Dürer and Hume

“Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan” is a new exhibition currently being held at The Morgan Library and Museum. On display are drawings, prints and illustrated books which showcase the development of Dürer’s artistic style. Works include the engravings Adam and Eve (1504) and Melencolia I (1514) as well as a copy of Dürer’s “Four Books on Human Proportion” (1532-1534).

Dürer thought that he had attained artistic perfection with a number of his works. In a letter to a patron for whom Dürer had created a woodcut he says “Please let it be as it is. No one could improve it because it was done artistically and with care. Those who see it and who understand such matters will tell you so.” Dürer obviously considered himself to be a fine judge of the beautiful even though he could not explain what it was in particular that made an artwork beautiful. In another quote he says “What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things.”

Two centuries later the philosopher David Hume was similarly interested in judgments of beauty. In his 1757 essay “Of the Standard of Taste” Hume investigates whether objective judgments of taste are possible and also how these judgments might be justified. Continue reading “Defining Beauty: Dürer and Hume”