Painting of the month for October 2015

Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar

1500. Oil on wood Alte Pinakothek, Munich

As far as self-portraits go this has got to be one of the greatest in the whole history of art. It has a special significance to me because I lived with a print of it on my bedroom wall for many years as a student. Dürer was one of the first artists that I really fell in love with, being inspired by his engravings for which he is most famous.

Trying to look at this painting with fresh eyes I am at first struck by the high contrast of light and dark. The area of almost black paint dominates the surface, while illuminating the sitter and keeping our focus on him.  Chiaroscuro as a compositional device is now familiar to us in art (notably in the wake of Caravaggio) but this was painted in 1500, and would have been a radically original move for Dürer to make. We see the artist at half-length, facing us in a pose that is often referred to as Christ-like, the hand almost in a gesture of blessing. Long twizzled locks of hair frame his face and help create a strong triangular shape in the picture. The palette of rich browns bind the image, with areas of white breaking through at the neck and in the slashes on his fashionable coat. His expression is serious and serene, giving an impression of maturity and knowledge beyond his 28 years. Portraits usually tell us something about the sitter, but I always feel that I am being kept at a distance here. This is Dürer has a master artist, an untouchable higher being. It reminds me of traditional Venetian portraiture advocated by Bellini and his successors, but there is a quintessential Northernness to the realism and microscopic detail.

Dürer painted many self-portraits throughout his life, which serve us as a kind of diary, telling us about what was going on with the artist at the time. By this time in his life he had completed an apprenticeship, had been on a journey to Italy and was an established artist back in Nuremberg. From works such as this you can see that he had a high regard for art as a traditional practice, but simultaneously he liked to experiment. He was an intellectual artist, applying mathematical theories and Humanist ideas to his works. The inclusion of the Latin text (which translates as I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in everlasting colours aged twenty-eight years) and his famous monogram give us an indication of his academic side, a trend which infiltrated all Renaissance art. Dürer’s virtuosity in a range of art forms meant that his influence spread far and wide, but it is his technical ability paired with such a visionary bravura that make him a truly great artist.


"Durer selfporitrait" by Albrecht Dürer - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -