Although there are a few instances of self-portraits in Western Art before Albrecht Dürer, most notably Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) from 1433, Dürer was the first artist to prolifically produce self-portraits throughout their career, ushering in a new conception of the artist who could also be the very subject matter of art.
Dürer’s first self-portrait is a silver-point drawing from 1484 produced when he was only thirteen. At the time he was learning the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father, however such was his precocious artistic talent that he became apprentice to Nuremberg’s leading artist, Michel Wolgemut, at the age of fifteen. Notice the flowing locks of hair and the long, slender, artistic fingers which would be repeatedly emphasised in a number of subsequent self-portraits.
Dürer’s first painted self-portrait is the Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle completed when he was 22 and probably intended as a betrothal present to his fiance Agnes Frey. The thistle was a sign of conjugal fidelity and also thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
The second painting is the Self-Portrait at 26, painted after his first journey to Italy. Here Dürer portrays himself as a man of the world and also a man of fashion. His presence dominates the setting and the landscape seen through the window and his knowing, ironic gaze stares out at the viewer with more than a hint of arrogance.
Dürer’s final and most famous painted self portrait is the powerful Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar from 1500. Here Dürer is unmistakably portraying himself as Christ. The muted tones and the fingers raised in a sign of blessing belong to the traditional depictions of Christ, as well as being half-length and frontal as opposed to the three-quarters length favoured for secular portraits. It is undoubtedly the most complex and introspective of all his self-portraits with an unprecedented psychological depth.
The rest of Dürer’s self-portraits are mainly confided to cameo appearances in other works. However in 1509 he would draw a remarkable Self-Portrait in the Nude, submitted the whole of his body to a merciless self scrutiny that wouldn’t be matched in art again until the advent of Modernism in the early 20th Century.