‘More than one aspect offers itself to the eye of the beholder.’
Panofsky’s statement gets to the heart of the complexity of Albrecht Dürer’s artworks. This essay will scrutinise the wide range of influences on Albrecht Dürer the Younger (1471-1528) by analysing the artist’s Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Six (1498). After briefly introducing the artist, I will examine the aesthetic impact of the Italian Renaissance and humanist thought on the painting. In a next step, I will demonstrate how Dürer’s artwork is also inspired by Northern portraiture. Moreover, the discussion will be embedded in the cultural and historical context in which the painting was created by underlining the special status of Nuremberg and Venice in the late 15th century.1
Albrecht Dürer the Younger was born on the 21st of May 1471 in Nuremberg, Germany. He was trained by his father, the Hungarian goldsmith Albrecht Dürer the Elder, until he entered the workshop of Michael Wolgemut in 1486.2 Few years later, Dürer travelled to Colmar and Basel where he got in touch with the engravings of Martin Schongauer. Both, Wolgemut and Schongauer were strongly influenced by contemporary Netherlandish Renaissance painting.3 Therefore, it is very likely that Dürer was introduced to Northern art at an early stage of his artistic career. He possibly even continued his first journeyman-years in the Netherlands.4 The impact of Flemish art on Dürer’s 1498 Self-Portrait will be discussed shortly.
Little is known about the exact procedure of Dürer’s wanderjahre. Nonetheless, it is commonly believed that Dürer’s exceptionally long journeyman-years proceeded after the marriage to Agnes Frey in 1494. In the same year, Dürer left for Venice due to an outbreak of the plague in Nuremberg.5 His second trip to Venice dates from 1505 until 1507. During the time in Italy Dürer studied Italian Renaissance masterpieces, newly developed art theories and the writings of ancient scholars.6 Thus, being familiar with Northern and Southern contemporary European art, Dürer soon established a visual language which is clearly influenced by both styles.
By the age of twenty-six Dürer was a travelled and educated man, who already owned an own workshop in Nuremberg. Mainly his woodcuts and engravings had an outstanding reputation, as well as the artworks he created for Friedrich the Wise.7 Dürer’s Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Six (Figure 1) gives proof of his familiarity with Italian and Northern artistic traditions, as well as his status as an artist in the year 1498.
On the one hand, the Self-Portrait is strongly influenced by the achievements of the Italian Renaissance. The rising interest in geometrical forms and clear spatial divisions of the picture’s space through vertical and horizontal lines reminds one, for instance, of the Italian master Leonardo da Vinci. Furthermore, Dürer uses a similar triangular composition as da Vinci in his painting Virgin of the Rocks (Fig. 2). The importance of geometry and the mastering of perspective were introduced to the arts by Filippo Brunelleschi and the humanist Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote down the theoretical basis of Renaissance art in his famous piece ‘Della Pittura’ [On Painting] shortly after Brunelleschi had pioneered the use of the one point perspective.8
Despite the clear spatial structure, Dürer’s figure does not appear to be static. The upper torso is depicted in a gentle turn towards the right, which conveys a sense of motion. This vitality is supported by the expressiveness of the sitter’s eyes. Although they are not showing any particular emotion, they convey an important message. In meeting the beholder’s gaze, they are revealing the reflection of further windows, which could be understood as symbolic ‘windows of the [artist’s] soul’.9 Probably this visual metaphor was introduced to Dürer by the German humanist Konrad Celtis.10 Additionally, the psychological suggestiveness of the eyes reminds of da Vinci’s affetti.
Further similarities between Dürer and the Italian Renaissance are the use of warm colours and the soft transitions of tones. Depth and plasticity are conveyed through masterly handled contrasts between light and shade. The chiaroscuro is especially impressively executed in the folds of the sleeves and of the shirt. The blueing out landscape in the background suggests the use of the atmospheric perspective.
Assuming that Dürer travelled to Italy in 1494, the alpine landscape could be inspired by the watercolour sketches which the artist produced during the journey (compare Figure 3). However, according to Luber, it is uncertain whether Dürer even travelled to Venice before 1505, because of a lack in evidence and difficulties in dating the watercolours.11
In contrast, the contemporary Venetian attire of the artist speaks in favour of Dürer’s first journey.12 In depicting himself as an upper-class Italian nobleman instead of a conventional German craftsman, Dürer is already making a statement about his status as an artist. Especially his connection to humanist thought explains his extraordinary self-consciousness.
The humanist movement was rooted in the rediscovery and the revival of ancient Greek and Roman writings. The study of classical literature did not only provide “new” perspectives in relation to science and arts, but also encouraged the appreciation of human beings as individuals.13 Particularly Italian artists benefited from the intellectual movement, in which their divine creativeness was often praised. A prominent example is the glorification of Michelangelo’s ingenium in Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori’ of 1550. In the same book, he also mentioned Albrecht Dürer as a superior Flemish painter. Additionally, he praises the artist’s engravings and how they soon even influenced Italian artists such as Raphael.14 Although Italy was the cradle of humanist thought and artistic theory, the movement rapidly spread over Europe. One of its Northern centres was Dürer’s hometown Nuremberg. The significant international importance of the free imperial city, concerning trade, printmaking and manufacturing of metalworks, attracted many scholars.15 By the end of the 15th century, Nuremberg was already seen as the ‘Augusta praetoria imperii’ of humanism and economy, the most important city of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.16 It is commonly recognized that Dürer had connections to Nuremberg humanists such as Konrad Celtis, who drew a parallel between the virtuosity of Dürer and outstanding ancient artists.17 Dürer himself joined the humanist circle shortly before painting the 1498 Self-Portrait.18 Furthermore, he did not only study classical art and literature in Nuremberg and on his journeys, but also produced own writings on artistic theory.19 As mentioned above, the visual evidence of humanist impact on the 1498 Self-Portrait can be seen in the reflection of symbolic windows in the artist’s eyes. Additionally, Dürer’s fashionable Italian attire and the white gloves reveal him as a travelled, educated and wealthy man. Clearly, he is showing himself as a member of the ‘intellectual and social élite’.20 He is thus claiming the high status of a nobleman rather than of a modest craftsman.
Dürer’s self-confidence is also underlined by the proud display of his physical beauty. The treatment of the human figure follows the Italian tradition rather than the typical Northern representation of slightly unproportional, gothic bodies. In contrast, Dürer’s exposed skin on the neck and below reveals an understanding of human anatomy and of the interplay between muscles, bones and veins. His distinctive physical appearance is underlined by the neat curly dark-blond hair, which is elegantly falling on his shoulders. It is, as well as his beard (Fig 1a), painted with great accuracy. Interestingly, he chose to depict himself wearing a beard, although this did not correspond to the contemporary fashion.21
Dürer does not need to depict himself as an artist since his artistic skill is demonstrated by the quality of the painting itself. Consequently, his intellectuality and the desire to showcase his status clearly distinguished Dürer from most Northern artists of the time.22
Despite all the indicators of Italian influence, the Flemish impact on Dürer’s painting cannot be overseen. The composition, to portrait the sitter in half-length, in ¾-profile in front of a window with stretching landscape, follows the Netherlandish tradition as it is executed by artists such as Dieric Bouts (compare Figure 4).23 Furthermore, the parapet on which the figure’s right arm and hands are resting is typical of Northern portraiture.24 Also, the use of the oil-medium was established and widely spread in the Netherlands.25 Due to its long drying time, it allowed the inclusion of naturalistic details and simplified corrections.26 Dürer’s painting is full of such details. For instance, the folds of the white shirt, the design of the golden fringe, the curly hair and the slightly dissimilar eyes are painted very naturalistically. Hence, the artist is deliberately maintaining a certain degree of recognition instead of fully idealizing his features.
The composition of the painting corresponds to the Northern tradition of placing the sitter in front of a window which displays a stretching landscape.27 Consequently, there is only one natural light source visible. Dürer could have learned this manner from his former master Michael Wolgemut (compare Figure 5). Nevertheless, the brightness of the figure’s right side and the reflection of windows in the sitter’s eyes suggest a second light source coming from the left-hand side. Also, the use of symbolic elements such as the ‘window of the soul’ or the bound tassels as signs for marital fidelity are common in Flemish art.28
Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Northern Renaissance had a huge impact on Venetian artists concerning the use of the oil as well as visual means themselves.29 Therefore, the art scene in Venice was already characterised by hybridity when Dürer visited the city. This means he could have gotten in touch with Northern traditions in Italy.
Another significant element in Dürer’s Self-Portrait is the inclusion of an inscription (Figure 1b) right beneath the windowsill as if it was written on the wall. The German text says ‘1498 / This I painted after my own image / I was twenty-six years old / Albrecht Dürer’ and is followed by Dürer’s ‘AD’-monogram. Other artists, such as van Eyck, added prominent inscriptions as well (compare Figure 6/6a). Dürer though goes further than merely providing information about his profession, his age and his name by recording his appearance. Hence the painting was not a commission, it can be assumed that it was created for self-advertisement and to capture Dürer’s appearance at a certain point in time.30
Based on the preceding analysis, it becomes obvious that Albrecht Dürer was familiar with both the Italian and the Northern tradition. Furthermore, humanist thought as well as the cultural variety of Nuremberg and Venice, play an important role in the interpretation of Dürer’s Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Six. Dürer’s claim of a special status as a divine and creative artist, which is clearly visible in the discussed painting, will climax only two years later in his ultimate painted Self-Portrait in a Fur Collared Robe (Figure 7). Therefore, Dürer borrowed from existing aesthetic tradition but, above all, he established an individual visual language. Dürer’s exceptional personality and his outstanding artworks form his artistic legacy as the leading and pathbreaking figure of the German Renaissance.
Alberti, L. B., ‘Della Pittura’ [On Painting], in: ed. Sinisgalli, R., On Painting: A new Translation and Critical Edition, Cambridge, 2013.
Anzelewsky, F., Dürer: His Art and Life, transl. Grieve, H., New York, 1980.
Barker, E., Webb, N., and Woods, K., The Changing Status of the Artist, New Haven, 1999.
Boggi, F., ‘Renaissance architecture: Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante’, in: HA1002: From Antiquity to Renaissance, UCC, 08.11.2016.
Boggi, F., ‘Renaissance Painting in Venice’, in: HA1002: From Antiquity to Renaissance, UCC, 22.11.2016.
Crawford Luber, K., Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance, Cambridge, 2005.
Eichler, A.-F., Masters of German Art: Albrecht Dürer, 1471 - 1528, Cologne, 1999.
Kahsnitz, R., and Wixom, W. D., with contributions, Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg 1300 - 1550, München, 1986.
Knowles, S., ‘Flemish Painting’, in: HA1002: From Antiquity to Renaissance, UCC, 1.11.2016.
Murray, A., ‘Self-Portraits: Albrecht Dürer’, in: HA2009: Creator and Subject: Themes in Portraiture, UCC, 30.09.2016.
Murray, A., ‘Renaissance Painting in Germany’, in: HA1002: From Antiquity to Renaissance, UCC, 14.11.2016.
Panofsky, E., The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton, 1955. Smith, J. C., Dürer, London, 2012.
Vasari, G., ‘Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori’ [The lives of the artists], 1550, in: T. S. R. Boase, Giorgio Vasari: The Man and the Book, Washington D. C., 1971.
1 Panofsky, E., The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton, 1955, 44.
2 Kahsnitz, R., and Wixom, W. D., with contributions, Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg 1300 - 1550, München, 1986, 473.
3 Smith, J. C., Dürer, London, 2012, 40-42.
4 Ibid., 43.
5 Eichler, A.-F., Masters of German Art: Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528, Cologne, 1999, 22.
6 Barker, E., Webb, N., and Woods, K., The Changing Status of the Artist, New Haven, 1999, 104-105. 1
7 Smith, 77.
8 Boggi, F., ‘Renaissance architecture: Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante’, in: HA1002: From Antiquity to Renaissance, UCC, 08.11.2016.
9 Smith, 78.
10 Eichler, 62.
11 Crawford Luber, K., Albrecht Dürer and the Venetian Renaissance, Cambridge, 2005, 55.
12 Eichler, 49.
13 Barker, 16.
14 Vasari, G., ‘The Lives of the Artists’, in: T. S. R. Boase, Giorgio Vasari: The Man and the Book, Washington D. C., 1971, 200-201.
15 Eichler, 62.
16 Anzelewsky, F., Dürer: His Art and Life, transl. Grieve, H., New York, 1980, 7-8.
17 Smith, 149.
18 Anzelewsky, 9.
19 Kahsnitz, 473.
20 Anzelewsky, 246.
21 Anzelewsky, 245.
22 Murray, A., ‘Self-Portraits: Albrecht Dürer’, in: HA2009: Creator and Subject: Themes in Portraiture, UCC, 30.09.2016.
23 Murray, A., ‘Renaissance Painting in Germany’, in: HA1002: From Antiquity to Renaissance, UCC, 14.11.2016.
24 Boggi, F., ‘Renaissance Painting in Venice’, in: Ibid ., 22.11.2016.
25 Anzelewsky, 27.
26 Knowles, S., ‘Flemish Painting’, in: Ibid., 1.11.2016.
27 Murray , HA2009, 30.09.2016.
28 Smith, 77-78.
29 Boggi, 22.11.2016.
30 Barker, 106 and Eichler, 49.