Marianne Moore: Poetry

June 20, 2010

“The Steeple-Jack:” Albrecht Durer’s Presence

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 12:24 pm
Tags: , , , ,

A candidate for

where a sea the purple of the peacock’s neck is

paled to greenish azure as Durer changed

the pine green of the Tyrol to peacock blue and guinea grey:

Albrecht Durer, “View of the Arco Valley,” Watercolor Drawing, 1496

This view of Arco, a rocky outcrop topped by a citadel to the north of Lake Garda, is one of Dürer’s finest and most elaborate landscapes. It was executed in 1495 when he was returning from his first trip to Italy, along the road from Venice to his native city of Nuremberg. On the way, Dürer executed about fifteen watercolor landscapes, now found in Vienna, Berlin, Bremen, and London. This is one of the best known.

The Return from Italy

One fine spring morning in 1495, when Dürer was traveling from Venice to Brenner via Trent, he stopped near Arco, a citadel perched on a rocky outcrop north of Lake Garda. He had come from Venice, where he could well have seen landscapes by Carpaccio, Cima da Conegliano, and Bellini, and was on his way to Nuremberg. No doubt he had wanted to see Lake Garda and was suddenly struck by the spectacle of nature coming to life in early spring and of a fortress, which perhaps stirred memories of his homeland. The annotation is believed to have been added circa 1502-1503; the monogram is also a later addition.

Two Phases

This work seems unfinished only in the centre right, whereas all the other watercolors painted during Dürer’s first Italian sojourn make good use of unfinished effects to suggest immediacy. Most of these watercolors date from the journey to Venice. The more elaborate appearance of this work may be due to greater stylistic maturity; however, the foreground may also have been added later – the colors are different and the style is rather drier than in the main subject. The pale tonalities of the watercolors may be the result of Mantegna’s influence.

Power, Balance, Clarity

Dürer’s watercolor landscapes have a special place in European art circa 1500 but generated no immediate imitators, even among his pupils. Here, while accurately describing the topographical features of the site, Dürer has tried to capture the poetic light and color of the spring landscape. The gray-blue of the olive trees and the very pale tones of the watercolors are evocative of the countryside in early morning. Dürer has admirably rendered the vegetation, especially the grape vines. The crenellations on the walls around the little village are perhaps slightly oversized, but they emphasize Dürer’s interest in protective fortifications. Similarly, the mountains that tower above the outcrop have been deliberately omitted to focus attention on the central motif. And indeed a feeling of tempered, balanced power emanates from this fresh, luminous watercolor.

Technical information:

Pen and brown ink, watercolor and gouache highlights, retouched in black ink
H. 22.3 cm; W. 22.2 cm
Jabach Collection; purchased for the Cabinet du Roi in 1671
Prints and Drawings
Annotated by Dürer in pen and black ink, upper right: “fenedier klawsen” (Venetian collar) and by another hand in pen and brown ink, the artist’s monogram

–From the Louvre Museum Website

Moore may have seen this often-reproduced image in a printed version, but it was owned by the Louvre when she visited in August, 1911; as a work on paper, its chances of being on display were slim.

T. Sturge Moore, in his Albrecht Durer (New York: Scribner’s, 1905) mentions Durer’s travels to Venice, if not a visit to the Val d’Isarco in the Dolomites of the South Tyrol. He does, however, discuss Durer’s search for a beached whale. He quotes from Durer’s diary:

Antwerp, November 22-December 3, 1520.

At Zierikzee, in Zeeland, a whale has been stranded by a high tide and a gale of wind. It is much more than 100 fathoms long, and no man living in Zeeland has seen one even a third as long as this is. The fish cannot get off the land; the people would gladly see it gone, as they fear the great stink, for it is so large that they say it could not be cut in pieces and the blubber boiled down in half a year. (151)

December 9-—Early on Monday we started again by ship and went by the Veere and Zierikzee and tried to get sight of the great fish,* but the tide had carried him off again.

* The object of the whole expedition was, doubtless, that Durer might see and sketch the whale. (152)

And he noted that:

In the Netherlands, Durer’s curiosity to see a whale nearly resulted in his own shipwreck, and indirectly produced the malady which finally killed him. But Durer’s curiosity was really most scientific where it was most artistic; in his portraits, in his studies of plants and birds and the noses of stags, or the slumber of lions. (136)




  1. re: Steeple Jack– I’ve been using this image of the Tyrol in my classes for many years. But recently I’ve decided that this is only the beginning of the allusions to Durer. There’s the watercolor image of the bird’s wing, there’s Durer’s Melancholy (D would have seen a reason for living, etc.), there’s the religious images (Adam and Eve, the Apostles), there’s the “sea monster,” there’s the portrait of Melanchthon (Durer, a Catholic, admired Luther and is called the first Protestant painter).
    I tend to read MM’s references to Old Masters as allusions, with a long trail of connections–ditto Goya, El Greco, Da Vinci.
    I’m working on an article on this very topic.

    All best,

    Comment by Bonnie Costello — August 19, 2010 @ 11:36 am |Reply

  2. Good sleuthing on the Durer sighting of the whale.

    What does Moore mean by it in her poem?

    Comment by Kirby Olson — June 29, 2010 @ 4:34 pm |Reply

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