“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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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.
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.
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