Albrecht Durer (1471−1528) was the first artist in European art history who started creating self-portraits. He created more than ten self-portraits. Three self-portraits are painted artworks, and the others are drawings and etchings.
His self-portraits are usually named by his age during it’s creation. The painter Albrecht Durer’s most significant self-portrait is “Self-Portrait at 28,” where he portrayed himself in a way that’s similar to depictions of Christ. Art historians believe this indicates that he saw his talents as God-given.
Let’s briefly look at Albrecht Durer’s life story and discuss the facts about Albrecht Durer’s four most essential self-portraits.
The Painter Albrecht Durer’s Life Story
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the son of a goldsmith, worked as an apprentice for his father from a very young age. Albrecht Durer, as an artist, already emerged in his father’s workshop, where he quickly mastered the principles of drawing and goldsmithing. He drew a self-portrait when he was 13 years old, and his father allowed him to start in 1486 as an apprentice to the painter Michael Wolgemut.
After completing his apprenticeship, he took about four years to learn skills from other great artists. As a result, many Albrecht Durer drawings were created during his first years as an artist. He also created his first painted self-portrait during that period.
As a result of his skills and under the influence of other Renaissance artists, Durer developed into one of the greatest artists of the time. His personal life, however, was not as successful as his art career. Durer’s marriage was arranged by his father, and the marriage was not a happy one.
Emperor Maximilian, I became Albrecht Durer’s major patron in 1512. He was commissioned to paint “The Triumphal Arch.” Durer created this work by printing from 192 separate blocks. Apart from this monumental work, Durer created more than 800 works of art, including more than ten self-portraits.
Very First Self-Portrait: Self-portrait at 13 (1484)
Albrecht Durer’s father was a goldsmith, and Albrecht spent his days in the workshop since he was ten years old. By 13, he was already making sketches for necklaces and crowns.
When he was 13 years old, he took a silver point and drew himself while looking at his reflection in a mirror.
This was a difficult task as the silver point did not allow any patches, and he had to look at the paper and in the mirror without changing his posture and facial expression. Albrecht didn’t try to beautify himself – he just drew his face as he saw it in the mirror. This was his very first drawing of himself.
First Painted Self-Portrait: Self-Portrait at 22 (1493)
This self-portrait was the first of three paintings in oil and is also known as “Self-Portrait with a Thistle. There are interesting facts about Albrecht Durer related to this painting. Art historians are still debating whether all the facts are true or not. However, the Louvre, where the painting is currently housed, accepts the story to a certain extent.
The story is that while Durer was travelling near the Upper Rhine and improving his skills, his father betrothed a bride for Albrecht. He told his son about it in a letter. In the letter, he requested his son to paint a self-portrait and send it to his bride-to-be so that she could see what her groom looked like.
To make it easier to send the portrait to his family, Albrecht painted the self-portrait in oil on vellum and not on the customary wooden panel. Durer fulfilled the order with artistic enthusiasm. He depicted himself in theatrical elegance.
He is also holding an elegant thistle which might convey a message. However, art historians are also still debating the symbolic meaning of the thistle. According to the Louvre, the thistle held by the artist is called ‘Mannstreu’ in German, which means ‘husband’s fidelity. The artist himself added the inscription, “Things happen to me as it is written on high.”
Second Painted Self-Portrait: “Self-Portrait at 26” (1498)
In 1498, 5 years after the first painted self-portrait, the second of Durer’s three painted self-portraits was created. He was 26 years old, had already made trips to Northern Italy, and was entering his mature period.
While in Italy, he was impressed by the social status granted to great artists. He was looked down upon as a lowly craftsman in his home country, Germany. In this self-portrait, he wanted to portray himself as a Renaissance artist, not a mediaeval craftsman.
Therefore, Durer painted himself as a gentleman, smartly dressed. He is also depicted with a nifty beard and his hair carefully curled in Venetian style. He also painted himself with sheathed hands in grey kidskin gloves, indicative of high rank. The sheathed hands contribute to the image of his elevated social status from an artisan to an artist.
Third Painted Self-Portrait: Self-Portrait at 28 (1500)
This is a Christ-like self-portrait painted in 1500, just before Durer’s 29th birthday. It is an oil on wooden panel painting and is the best-known Durer self-portrait. Unlike his earlier self-portraits, the painting depicts him squarely facing the viewer. This was a pose generally reserved at that time for images of Christ. The position of his hand also reminds the viewer of the gestures of blessing in religious icons.
Most art historians agree that Durer was not out of line to compare him to Christ consciously. On the contrary, Durer was a fervent Christian, and for him to be like Christ was the mission and duty of a believer.
Some art scholars also believe that the year the self-portrait was painted had a hidden meaning. In 1500 the end of the world was expected, and with this self-portrait, Durer implied a kind of spiritual testament.
Albrecht Durer created masterpieces and was one of the great Renaissance artists. In addition, he did ground-breaking work in the self-portrait genre. We hope our brief introduction to his self-portraits will entice you to learn more about this famous artist.