A man of ambition, talent and not a little vanity over his blonde good looks, Albrecht Dürer created some of the first independent self-portraits in Western art. While artists had occasionally included themselves as secondary elements in large compositions, Dürer thought himself a worthy subject and this image is his earliest painted self-portrait, completed when he was just 22 years old.
Dürer was probably in Strasbourg at the time after completing his guild tour of southern Germany. He had been apprenticed to his father, a goldsmith, and the painter Michael Wolgemut in his home town of Nuremberg and he would soon set out on his first trip to Italy where he would absorb the influences of the Italian Renaissance and quickly evolve into one of the most talented artists of his time.
But in this portrait we see the young Dürer at the very beginning of that brilliant career. Depicted in three-quarter angle against a dark background, his pose is vaguely awkward; you can imagine the young man sitting in front of a mirror, constantly looking back and forth. He wears a fashionable costume: a bluish jacket with red piping over an embroidered chemise and a red tasseled hat atop his long blonde locks.
He is a stylish youth; not yet the elegant, haughty man of the world he would depict in later works (for instance, his 1498 self-portrait, today in the Prado, Madrid). There is still a youthful hesitation in his gaze though his features – the shapely lips, distinctive nose, strong neck and mane-like hair – are unmistakable. And already the portrait leaves no doubt as to Dürer’s skill as a draughtsman; the image is drawn with a graphic precision most clearly seen in the minute detail of the thistle and clothing.
Why did Dürer make this portrait? One theory, which may have begun with Goethe, is that this was an engagement present for Agnes Frey, whom Dürer would marry in 1494, as the name for the thistle he holds is ‘Mannstreu’, or ‘husband’s fidelity’. However, Dürer may not have been aware of his engagement when he made this portrait, as his father arranged it in Nuremberg in his absence.
Another theory is related to the inscription on the top of the painting – ‘1493 (D.H.); MIN SACH DIE, GAT ALS ES OBEN SCHTAT’ (‘Things happen to me as it is written on high’) – which could allude to Christ’s Passion, making the thistle a reference to the crown of thorns. In 1500, Dürer would paint a portrait of himself as a Christ-like figure (today in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich): is this a forerunner of that famous image? Or perhaps the self-portrait was simply the desire of a supremely skilled and self-aware young man to record an important moment in his career – the moment he moved from apprentice to master.
Regardless of the impetus, the portrait reflects both Dürer’s own sturdy self-confidence and the rising social status of the artist in Renaissance Europe. The medieval painter was considered a craftsman but the Italian Renaissance gave rise to the notion of the artist. At the cusp of these changing ideas, Dürer was keenly aware of his status as craftsman/artist. While in Venice he lamented in a letter to his friend, the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer: ‘In Venice, I am treated as a nobleman… Here I really am somebody, whereas at home I am just a hack’.
Back in Nuremberg, inspired by Italy, Dürer intensely studied mathematics, geometry, Latin, and humanist literature, pulling himself up, as it were, from mere artisan to the humanist ideal of the artist. His talent, ambition and wide-ranging intellect would earn him the respect and friendship of the most prominent figures in German society and he would act as court artist to the Holy Roman Emperors, Maximilian I and Charles V. However this was all in young Dürer’s future when he painted this iconic self-portrait.
Image © Musée du Louvre / A. Dequier - M. Bard
Wikipedia Article: Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle
c1493 Sandro Botticelli: Last Communion of St Jerome, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1495 Perugino: St Sebastian, Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum