What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Albrecht Dürer’s Masterpiece: Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (c. 1500)

“If a man devotes himself to art, much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

I tarried for a long while deciding which painting to cover next in the ‘What’s in a Painting?’ series. There’s just so much amazing art and many deserving artists to choose from! But for now, I have settled with Dürer’s beguiling and enigmatic Self-Portrait circa 1500, a mixed media composition on limewood, measuring 67.1 by 48.7 centimetres.

Dürer was the first ‘artist’ in the modern sense… This is for several reasons, which I’ll share as I go along.

First and foremost, the 1500 Self-Portrait is a mesmerising piece of art which I’m always drawn to, and was fortunate enough to see hanging in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich a few years ago. Looking at it I felt like I might have known him, it’s so…human. His image still speaks to us from the grave.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he painted it in the year 1500; the expected year of the Apocalypse that was foretold and dreaded in the late Middle Ages. But 1500 was also the first centennial year in Europe that was celebrated. It brought hope, change and new ideas.

You may also be thinking, ‘What’s there to talk about in a self-portrait?’ I almost fell into that trap until I started my research about the cosmopolitan Herr Dürer…

Da Vinci had drawn the iconic Vitruvian Man only ten years earlier, moving away from church art towards images of human beings, when human proportions became the standard for artistic creation.

What’s really incredible to me is the actual skill with which he depicts himself. It must be hard enough to paint a life-like portrait of another person, let alone oneself. What’s even more striking about this portrait is the fact that he is facing us full on.

You might think that is perfectly normal, and it is today, but back in 1500 only paintings of Christ were afforded that honour. Portraits by Dürer’s predecessor, Jan van Eyk, were always painted of a person slightly side on with their face at an angle. Had he painted this self-portrait just a few decades earlier, Dürer could have been burnt at the stake for what the medievalists would have considered unforgivable blasphemy.

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Indeed, he even has the audacity to show himself in a Christ-like pose, with his hand in front of his lapel, his gaze so utterly penetrating. It’s as if his kind, hazel eyes are looking right through me. I can’t be completely sure what his expression portrays.

If I were to put my finger on it I’d say self-assurance and serenity. His eyes radiate compassion and understanding; the windows to the soul of a deep thinker. Albrecht Dürer was twenty eight and at the height of his career when he painted it.

I’m also riveted by the detail and accuracy with which he has depicted his life-like hair. His long, flowing, spiralled curls are defined beautifully by the light glinting on the silky strands. Again, this natural, almost romantic look is not dissimilar to many images of Jesus, and he has also grown a short beard with tints of red. His powers of observation are amazing. It’s just so realistic. I even love the little tuft of fringe that tops his barely furrowed forehead.

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

His skin is both luminescent and slightly ruddy. The shadows shape his face perfectly. There’s a symmetry about his proportions that is divine in nature, representative of an omnipresent being. To me, he is saying, ‘I am every man,’ but he is also a humanist finding Christ within himself. He is comparing his own features with miraculous self-portraits of Christ.

So he’s looking out at us, but, rather mysteriously, he also appears to be absorbed in his body and inner world. The small piece of fur at the base of his coat overlaps his fingers, indicating he is rooted in a physical experience. Paradoxically his gaze then, is also one of introspection.

I am totally obsessed with this work of art! Not only is it incredible as a painting, it’s the ultimate Self-Portrait in the history of art. One could argue it’s also ground breaking as the first ever selfie…

“I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

Medieval media mogul

The modern cult of artist as personality was ushered in by Dürer. Art reveals the person who created it (regardless of subject matter), by showing the skill and character of its maker.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - woodcut print by Albrecht Durer c. 1497-98

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – woodcut print by Albrecht Durer c. 1497-98

Not only was Dürer supremely confident and talented in drawing, etching and painting (both watercolour and oil) he also harnessed the power of the invention of the age: Gutenberg’s printing press. He was the first major artist to embrace the revolutionary way images were made and used with his iconic woodcut prints. Instead of making just one print he was able to make and distribute thousands. It was a total transformation in communication.

Branding expert

Dürer’s ubiquitous monogram of a large capital A above the smaller D that he placed in a prominent position on all his works could be considered the very first trademark and brand. How clever of him to make sure everyone knew he was behind such works of genius…

Albrecht Durer - Monogram

I doubt that the likes of Coca-Cola, Apple, Disney and other famous brands realise how the concept of branding began with this visionary artist.

He wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what was acceptable, exploring his talent and his art regardless of the religious turmoil of the age. Living during the Renaissance and the Reformation enabled his vast creative expression to flourish.

Further south on the other side of the Alps in Italy, Dürer’s contemporaries; Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci were also making art history, but this did not seem to deter Dürer from forging his own path in Nuremberg.

Albrecht Dürer was the undoubted star of the Northern Renaissance; a polymath who mastered painting, printmaking, and theory. His fame and fortune was way ahead of its time for an artist of the early, modern era to experience in his lifetime. His popularity even reached as far as India.

Albrecht Dürer: Masterpieces at the Albertina

Earlier Self-Portraits

The very first self-portrait ever painted was also by the same artist, when he was just thirteen years old, and can be seen in The Albertina Museum in Vienna.

His 1498 Self-Portrait hints at an elegant, confident young man, with his shirt softly billowing in the breeze. However, each detail has been carefully considered and executed with the utmost technical precision.

Self Portrait c. 1498 by Albrecht Dürer in the Prado, Madrid

Self Portrait c. 1498 by Albrecht Dürer in the Prado, Madrid

He is portrayed as a slightly ostentatious dandy compared to his previous more boyish portraits.

Other Self-Portrait sketches by Dürer depict him in the act of sketching himself as well as in a vexed state. He was also the first artist to draw a nude Self-Portrait. He was certainly preoccupied with his own appearance, for no other artist before him had left such probing accounts of their person. Maybe for him, art was his way of exploring who he was at his core.

Albrecht Dürer: 21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528

Albrecht Dürer was born during the Northern European Renaissance as a native of Nuremberg, the third child to a Hungarian born goldsmith, Albrecht Ajtósi and his wife Barabra Holper, who supposedly had eighteen babies. Albrecht was the eldest son (and only one of three children) to make it to adulthood.

The German version of their Hungarian name was Türer, which Albrecht the Younger changed to Dürer to better suit the German language and dialect.

Albrecht Dürer statue in Nuremberg

He grew up in the mythical German city of Nuremberg during its golden age as a trading centre and home to the treasures of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1828 a bronze statue of Dürer was revealed to mark the third centenary of his death, (the first public statue of its kind of an artist in the world), and miraculously, it survived the heavy bombing of the city during the Second World War. To Nuremberg’s credit the historic city centre was rebuilt in its original medieval style that was so reminiscent of Dürer’s Halycon days.

For those that wish to learn more about his life and work:

He was a remarkable man; a humanist, scholar, philosopher and intellectual, with an interest in literature and nature as well as many forms of art. He left an incredible cultural legacy for humanity.

“As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Hans Holbein the Younger’s Masterpiece: The French Ambassadors (c. 1533)

Following on from my first installment about Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, I’m now turning to a work of art that was created in the Tudor period of English history; Holbein’s enigmatic and resplendent, The French Ambassadors. I’ve always been fascinated by this painting. It’s currently on display at the National Gallery in London.

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

This full-length double portrait with still-life objects depicts the French Amabssadors: Jean de Dinteville, the ambassador to England on the left (who commissioned the painting) and on the right is Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, ambassador to the Papal court. Both men served King Francis I of France.

You can tell by their posture, expressions and equal presence in the painting that they are good friends. Holbein seems to have captured beautifully the subtle nuance of their relationship and shared interests.

What also stands out for me looking at their stance, is how self-assured they appear, both personally and in regards to their faith, which would have been dangerously at odds with the religious turmoil in England at that time.

The painting has long been the focus of analysis and discussion, due to the many encoded clues contained within its colourful pigments. These hidden meanings spring from the Italian tradition, and because the work is full of symbolism it can be interpreted in a number of ways…

As I’ve said before, I’m no expert on art and art history, but it is a subject that interests me and I’m learning as I go!


As a lay person I can appreciate the incredible detail and vibrancy of the green jacquard curtain behind the men, the way the light catches on the satin and the fullness of the folds. On the far left upper corner of the picture you can see a dark shadow where you can just about make out a silver crucifix hanging, partially hidden behind the sumptuous material.

It highlights that both the painting’s subjects are staunchly Roman Catholic. You could also surmise that they believed Christ is always there even if you can’t see him.

Research has recently indicated that a chapel was located directly behind the wall on which the painting was once hung.

The anamorphic skull between them would have served as a reminder of the transient nature of human life to courtiers and holy men as they passed by the painting on their way to the chapel. Art scholars have deduced that the painting was originally hung in a narrow corridor due to the acute slant of the skull.

It was a measure of Holbein’s skill that he could distort the image so cleverly that it appears to be corrected when viewed from a steep angle to the side of the image. It serves as a memento mori that death eventually comes to all, no matter their station in life.

The portrait is very telling of the political and religious upheaval that was underway in England in 1533. Henry VIII was deeply involved in his ‘great matter’, namely how he could annul his lengthy marriage to Catherine of Aragon, marry Ann Boleyn and break away from the Pope in Rome.

The beautiful floor tiles are even significant, being the same as the ones in Westminster Abbey choir, where Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn. Thus Holbein was doffing his painterly cap in a political and personal gesture to his future patron and monarch.

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The ambassadors are standing either side of an étagère, a double level storage unit that has an oriental carpet draped over the top. Both are resting an arm on the upper level which contains items concordant with the ‘celestial’ sphere. The objects imply erudition in science, showing perfectly detailed instruments that measure time and the heavens.

We immediately feel that they are educated, learned men, concerned with the larger questions of existence and the universe. Their expressions convey a sort of intellectual intimacy.

The lower shelf portrays the ‘terrestrial’ sphere, with a hymnal open to Luther’s hymn ‘Come Holy Spirit our Souls Inspire’ and the lute, which has a broken string, could indicate that harmony has been broken by religious discord.

A brilliant analysis of The French Ambassadors by the National Gallery in London:

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543)

Born in Augsburg to a painter father (Hans Holbein the Elder) and younger brother to Ambrose Holbein, he is considered one of the greatest German painters of his time, alongside fellow Northern Renaissance masters, Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald.

Self portait

Self portait

While his father produced mainly religious paintings, Hans Holbein the Younger was able to branch out into woodcuts and portraiture. He was obviously filled with wanderlust, and lived and worked in Basel from 1515 to 1526, when he took a two year trip to England.

Holbein returned to Basel a fashionably dressed, wealthy man and bought a house. Basel was a flourishing intellectual city at the time, where the influential humanist scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, lived and worked. Such was his legacy that he reconciled classical antiquity with Christianity and was named ‘the first conscious European’ by Stefan Zweig.

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1523

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1523

Holbein painted Desiderius Erasmus a number of times, who furnished him with a letter of recommendation to the lawyer and author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More in London.

The iconoclasm of 1529 meant that religious paintings were banned in many parts so portraits became the main source of income for artists.

Holbein travelled to London again in 1532 where he was bestowed with many private commissions, one of which was by the now immortalised Jean de Dinteville. He also received commissions from Thomas Cromwell and the powerful Boleyn family.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein c. 1527. The Frick Collection New York

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein c. 1527. The Frick Collection New York

He was appointed as a court painter and portrait artist to Henry VIII in 1536. His annual income was around thirty pounds; less than the miniaturist painters at court received. However, it’s Holbein’s work that has endured from this period!

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

In recent years I enjoyed watching the hit TV series The Tudors, and here is a great scene where Thomas Cromwell commissions Master Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves (with the agenda of arranging a politically advantageous union between her and Henry), and tells him to make sure that he portrays her with a “pleasing countenance”.

Holbein’s supposedly complimentary 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleaves persuaded Henry to marry her, but unfortunately, when Henry decided that his bride’s actual appearance did not live up to that of her painting, Master Holbein fell from favour and did not receive any further royal commissions.

Hans Holbein the Younger died at the age of forty five, falling victim to the dreaded plague which was rampant in London in 1543.

Holbein is probably one of the best portrait artists of all-time, leaving a large number of eloquent and life like portraits of his contemporaries to posterity.


With regards to The French Ambassadors it’s not just the skill with which he has incorporated the hidden meanings, but also the sheer brilliance and appearance of the realistic figures, the fine details of the still life component and the texture of their clothes. I want to run my hand over their furs and silks…

However you interpret the painting, one thing’s for sure: it’s an amazing piece of art that is clever, beautiful, contemporary and full of technical mastery which is still relevant today.