It is difficult to know what an artist’s intentions were when they created their works. Most of the time, artists do not leave the public with a written statement of what their work intended. It is then left onto art historians and art critics to solve the mystery. In Albrecht Dürer’s case, there has been much debate about the artist’s exact intent with his illustrious Self-Portrait from 1500. Many speculations accuse Dürer of a defiant act of hubris. We know for sure that Albrecht Dürer was an extremely skilled painter and his Self-Portrait looks extremely familiar.
Albrecht Dürer’s Early Life And Prints
Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471 in the German city of Nuremberg. From the age of 11, Albrecht had worked as an apprentice under his father, a goldsmith, who taught him the invaluable skills of drawing and printmaking that would later prove crucial to his career as an artist. Albrecht’s talent and fame at an early age was also the product of considerable luck. His godfather’s support, Anton Koberger, one of the time’s most successful publishers in Germany, meant his immediate and easy exposure as a writer and printmaker. Additionally, Dürer’s training was nothing less than extraordinary. His three-year apprenticeship at the age of 15, under Nuremberg’s leading painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut, introduced him to the art of woodcuts, the medium he would later excel in.
Naturally, all this good luck and expert education catapulted the young Albrecht to instant artistic success. After some extensive traveling to some of the cultural capitals of the world, Dürer began to really hone his craft. In particular, his trip to Italy and the Netherlands around the early 1490s introduced the artist to exciting innovations and new forms of artistic expression that impacted his creative practice. By 1494, when Albrecht Dürer triumphantly returned to Nuremberg to settle down with his new bride Agnes Frey, he did so as a newly independent printmaker and renowned painter.
Young Albrecht, The Established Artist
The return to Nuremberg also marked the opening of Albrecht Dürer’s own workshop, where he focused on the production of woodcut prints. Generally, it is thought that Dürer focused more urgently on prints rather than on oil paintings because printmaking was significantly easier to produce and much more lucrative. The practice allowed Dürer to solidify his name as an exceptional artist across the continent because his prints were of far superior craftsmanship than any that circulated in Germany. Furthermore, prints could circulate widely, unlike oil paintings.
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As Dürer very well knew, paintings are a one-time thing: in most cases, they are meant to be sold and admired by a single individual. Even in the improbable event of their reproduction, the final piece would always be at least slightly different; but then again, no single patron commissioned the same work as another. With prints, the capabilities for reproduction and distribution were far easier. Therefore, Dürer naturally gravitated towards the production and merchandise of his exceptional prints. As it turns out, that was an extremely profitable decision since he regularly received commissions and even completed projects for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I.
The Blasphemous Artist
That being said, Albrecht did not abandon painting altogether. On the contrary, having been profoundly influenced by the various artistic innovations he encountered along his travels, Albrecht Dürer began experimenting with different compositional elements; color, body-position, lighting, and brushstrokes. These compositional experiments led to the release of a small series of self-portraits beginning in 1493 and closing with his final installment of the seminal Self-Portrait in 1500. In this piece, Dürer seems to present himself in a very familiar pattern, usually recognized in religious iconography.
The artistic prowess and religious elements of the 1500 Self-Portrait are undeniable. And yet, Dürer’s piece is historically recognized as something less than pious. What is deeply interesting is that the work garnered relatively little attention at the time of the portrait’s initial release. Surprisingly, Dürer and his portrait were branded as blasphemous three hundred years later. What could have changed in that time? Mainly its interpretation.
A Closer Look
Many, if not most of the interpretations we hold regarding artworks come to us from the field of art history and art criticism. These disciplines generally emerged in the latter half of the 18th century and were secured in the public discourse as academic fields during the 19th and 20th centuries. Understanding this concept is crucial because the first order of business for any prospective art historian or critic, regardless of their historical context, is observation.
When art historians looked at Albrecht Dürer’s 1500 Self-Portrait, they all saw a pastiche of a Late Northern Medieval depiction of Jesus Christ. More specifically, Dürer can be seen looking directly out of the canvas to the viewer, in a front-facing position, from the waist up and in perfect symmetry to the canvas. Additionally, he wears his hair long and slightly curly in a golden-brown color, a shade different from his own natural pigment. His right hand is curled into an intriguing gesture while his left holds his fur coat. Finally, the golden inscription adorning the plain background bears a unique message: “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, made an image of myself in appropriate (everlasting) colors in my 28th year.”
The Imitation Of Christ
All of these compositional elements point intentionally to the image of the Savior. There is no debate surrounding the fact that Dürer painted his portrait in one of the most recognizable stylistic traditions reserved for the figure of Jesus Christ. This stylistic tradition is referred to as Christ Pantokrator and is considered one of the most identifiable artistic styles in Christian iconography. This method of religious imagery was fairly widespread in the Middle Ages and can be found in many frescoes and mosaics as well as in most of the representations of Christ in Greek and Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.
In Dürer’s time, there was believed to be a written eye-witness account of the figure of Christ. As expected, Dürer has styled himself after the image given in the account, changing, for example, the shade of his blond hair to that of “the color of ripe hazel-nut.” Essentially, Albrecht Dürer knew exactly what he was doing.
Interpretations Of The Self-Portrait
The question remains why Albrecht Dürer would knowingly depict himself in a manner reserved exclusively for a religious figure. The public would surely see such a move as an arrogant act of outright hubris. An instance such as this is where the interpretation of artistic intent varies across the ages. As discussed, at the time of the portrait’s release, there was very little commotion, especially because paintings were made mostly through commissions. This assumes that Dürer painted his portrait as a form of exercise for personal gains and to further explore the artistic innovations of his time. Most of Dürer’s contemporaries would have regarded Albrecht’s work as the exercise of a pious man, creating an image in the very common tradition of the ‘Imitation of Christ’: the religious practice of following in Christ’s steps.
However, when art historians from the early 19th century, such as Moritz Thausing, analyzed the piece, he found that rather than Dürer imitating the image of Christ, every depiction of Christ after Dürer was copied from his own image. This means that Dürer’s Self-Portrait was so well-regarded and influential at the time that it became the blueprint for any following representations of religious figures. This was an astounding feat. However, when late 19th and early 20th century audiences belonging to the Christian revival movement reassessed the piece, they found it considerably lacking. The famous art historian Erwin Panofsky even branded it as “blasphemous.”
Albrecht Dürer, The Great Artist
We will never know whether or not the 19th- and 20th-century art historians were accurate since their work remains largely speculatory. However, based on some known facts about Albrecht Dürer’s life and the compositional elements of the painting, we can attempt to make an educated guess. The overarching narrative we can draw from the 1500 Self-Portrait is the portrayal of a confident artist. As Dürer states himself, he completed the piece before reaching the age of 29 and having worked already for many years as a well-respected artist in his home country and other artistic hubs across Europe. It is also a safe assumption that it takes a special kind of talent to influence an entire stylistic tradition, as Dürer and his portrait had.
What can be learned from Dürer’s piece is the power art history holds on an artwork’s narrative and its acceptance from the public. Despite the existence or non-existence of any symbolic element or attempt to subvert religious beliefs and iconography, Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait is a piece of undisputed artistic prowess and superior compositional beauty.