The painting is a half-length frontal self-portrait, the painting depicts Durer with his hand grasping the furry collar of his warm ochre coat, as he gazes forward upon the viewer. He presents himself in a very erect manner, in exquisite symmetry. The face is very expressive and magnetic, serene and undisturbed, framed by a symmetrical cascade of long curly hair. The background is an empty black void where only the inscriptions appear, almost floating.
Dürer’s last and most famous self-portrait, he portrayed himself wearing an elegant robe, garnished with fur, which exalts and portrays the high social status he proudly had achieved. In this work, the artist portrays himself as a Christ-like figure, with similar hair, in a similar pose and with a similar presence, reinforcing his divine inspired power to paint.
The first portrait to portray ordinary people from a frontal position, as was reserved only for Christ, it is one of Durer’s most recognizable and iconic paintings, a fundamental reference of the Renaissance. He painted this work at the age of 28, which reflects the beliefs of the time that this was a rite of passage, from youth to adulthood.
Returning from Italy, Dürer had become a master of his trade; through graphic work Durer had already acquired an European stature. Back at home, he received many orders that made him famous. His work was already known outside Nuremberg, and the artist himself put his work on a commercial basis. Durer was very much aware of his role in the evolution of art.At the same time, a new century was approaching, the beginning of which would mark the end of the world (a popular belief that emerged from the passage from the Book of Revelation: “half-time after the time”). The intense period of eschatological expectation had a significant influence on Durer. In the winter of 1500, he had just reached the age of maturity, according to the life expectancy of his time.
After his death, the portrait was kept in the city of Nuremberg, where it still remained in the last quarter of the 16th century. It was removed from the city in the 18th century, integrating the royal collections of Bavaria in the 19th century.
A New Self Portraiture: The self-portrait was born from the consideration that European artists of the time had of themselves. Even the great Italian artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, had expressed this self-consideration only in words, while Dürer expressed it in the form of the self-portrait. Having just turned 28, known as reaching the threshold of adulthood, the painting commemorates a turning point in both his life and the new millennium – 1500 – floating on the left side of the painting. For the first time, Dürer depicted himself as Christ, using similar iconography. Dressed in classy fur-trimmed clothes, he seemed to compare himself with the Creator, who with his chisel and brush creates his own special, mysterious and unique world. Placing himself from the front, he portrays himself in a position that only Christ was depicted in at the time, something that had never happened in portraits of common people.
The Emotional Expression: The artist achieved an incredible psychological (…), if on the one hand the expression is of an impersonal dignity, serene and undisturbed, he shows a very expressive and magnetic state, which captivates the viewer.
The Artist as Christ/God: The painting is mostly known for its highly symbolic meaning, portraying himself in the image of Christ, as one carries a divine power within himself. The iconography of this painting resembles those of the early representations of Jesus and those of religious paintings. The symmetry, penetrating look, wavy hair, perfect proportions of the face create a resonance with Christ’s features; even the hand rendered at the bottom of the frame is positioned in a gesture typical of the sacred father, in an act of blessing, related to a divine power. In northern tradition, Christ was often depicted in the same symmetrical position, looking straight forward and outside the canvas, especially when represented as Salvator Mundi. Durer added a Latin inscription to the work: ALBERTUS DURERUS NORICUS | IPSUM ME PROPRIJS SIC EFFIN | GEBAM COLORIBUS AETATIS || YEAR XXVIII, perhaps dictated by his friend Willibald Pirckheimer), which roughly translates to: “ I Albrecht Dürer from Nuremberg, at the age of 28, with appropriate colours created (or painted) myself in my image”. In its deep religious sense, he wrote that the capacity of the artist is intimately involved with the creative power of God, and his talent is invested by God himself. Claiming to create, not like God, but in the image of himself. Durer refers to the words of creation in the Old Testament (“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27), that God created man in his likeness. To emphasize this analogy between the painter and Christ he positioned his hand in a way to recall the traditional gesture of blessing.
In this portrait, the artist adopted a very strict frontal position, following a construction scheme used in the Middle Ages for the image of Christ. It uses a rigid symmetry and frontal positioning, along with a non-conventional background, which removes Dürer from a specific time or place. With a strong geometric composition, Dürer puts his face in focus, not only by lighting, but also by the many midpoints.The colours emit a somber mood; against the black and red background, white and brown tones, the figure’s face stands out brilliantly. These colours belong to the classic palette of the time, especially in the Northern Renaissance.
The portrait is harmoniously symmetrical. By forming a rectangle around the figure’s face, its diagonals cross with the bridge of his nose – precisely at the center of his face.
Adding the rule of thirds, the lines perfectly align with both the corners of his mouth and the corners of his eyes.
Full portrait grid.
Applying the rule of third once more, the bottom third ends at his shoulders and the top third passes just under his nose. Forming a triangle and diagonals inside the top two thirds, the lines intersect at his eyebrow line. Diagonals along the entire composition cross – the exact center of the piece – crossed over the middle of his throat.
There are various other self portraits painted previously, namely Self-portrait at 26 (1498) and Self-portrait of the artist holding a thistle (1493),and studies of his own image. The artist carried a keen interest in the exploration of his self-image, as there are a total of at least twelve surviving self-portraits. Whereas the earlier examples are lighter in tone and character, this painting, more complex in nature, composition, and symbolical associations. In this one, thought to be the last, he combines his previous knowledge on his own image with the Christ iconography.
Portraying himself from the front was an unthinkable audacity in the 16th century. All portraits of that time were distinguished by one thing in common: ordinary people were always portrayed sideways or at three-quarter poses and only Christ was the exception. Although Hans Holbein had painted Henry VIII of England in a similar pose, a result of the perfecting of the three quarter view developed during the Early Renaissance, Dürer was the first artist to completely violate this unofficial ban. In this self-portrait, Dürer presents himself in a Christ-like manner, something that was never done before. The artist had indulged in self-representation before, but never in such an audacious attempt, as his previous examples followed the rules of portraiture of the time, like Self-portrait at 26 (1498) and Self-portrait of the artist holding a thistle (1493). As only Christ was depicted in a frontal view with a serene yet imposing presence, no mortal being could be represented in the same way. However, Dürer’s take on portraiture is a clear reflection of the ideals of the time, as Man became the center of the universe, the measure of all things. This way, his daring self-portrait remains one of the most iconic and captivating in the history of art.
Before Dürer started exploring self-portraits, that type of portrait was very unusual in Northern tradition, with very few examples of it being known, which cannot be fully verified, such as Portrait of a Man (1433) by Jan van Eyck and Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (c. 1435–1440) by Rogier van der Weyden (in which Saint Luke’s face is thought to resemble the one of the artist). Instead, Dürer was inspired by the portraits of Christ from that time, some of which are: Head of Christ (c. 1445) by Petrus Christus, Christ Giving His Blessing (1478) by Hans Memling and Head of Christ (c. 1480-1520) by Gerard David. In addition, it also believed that he based this work on a previous one of Christ as Man of Sorrows (c. 1493), which pays close resemblance when it comes to some of the facial features.
Dürer’s self-portrait had a great impact on the subsequent centuries, and its influence can be clearly seen in Christ and the Adulteress (1637) by Johann Georg Fischer. His interest in self-portraits also influenced Rembrandt in a very deep sense, using a similar colour palette, for example in Self Portrait at Age 63 (1669). This interest set the precedents for the future fascination by self exploration and introspection in many artists to come, including van Gogh, becoming very common among the artistic community.
When visiting The Hague in about 1856, Édouard Manet was fascinated by this piece and made a small rendering by his own division, using a limited range of colours, which he later offered to his physician, Dr. Siredey.