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Albrecht Dürer - Self-portrait with fur-trimmed rope

by Alexandra Tuschka

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer looks us straight in the eye. His face is turned towards us frontally, his gaze alert, his lips relaxed. The man has divided his hair neatly into two equal halves by a clear center parting. The curls that now hang down from both sides of the face have been carefully twisted in, the beard trimmed. The fabrics and materials depicted are so accurately rendered that individual eyelashes and even different fabric fibers can be distinguished. The fur Dürer wears here, however, was reserved for people of high status. The frontal view is also unique to this period. On the one hand, compared to the half-profile or profile, it offered hardly any possibilities to achieve a high plasticity of the face, on the other hand, this top view inevitably reminds us of icon depictions. The raised right hand, which rests here on the fur, corresponds to a gesture of blessing. The background reveals nothing; only two writings tell us something about the circumstances of its origin. On the left of the picture the year "1500" and the monogram of the artist can be seen, on the right of the picture the inscription with the words: "Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremberg, painted myself in natural colors at the age of 29." The typical studio light, which here falls into the picture from the upper left, was a practical choice of light source, since the right-handed artist could make gradations without shadows of his hand. But now to the most important question: what prompted Dürer to make this unusual choice?

To understand the work, we should go back to the time of the Renaissance and emerging humanism. For centuries artists were considered to be craftsmen, they were not considered to have any creative power of their own. If, for example, the church gave a commission, a good man was sought to carry out this commission; his identity, however, was secondary. Also, for a long time, only sacred themes were considered worthy of being depicted at all, which meant, conversely, that portraits and self-portraits of normal citizens had no place at all in art for a long time. This also changed because colors and materials became more affordable over time. Of Dürer, however, it is known that he was very well aware of his own creative power. He even had his monogram secured, like a kind of brand name, and even the choice of this unusual portrait speaks to his healthy self-confidence and striving for advancement. Last but not least, the fur, which actually was not entitled to him, is a sign of this.

It is not believed that this was a commissioned work, but rather that the work is said to have hung in the living room of his house until the end of the genius's life. Perhaps it was a kind of taster for possible clients? After all, this work is realistic for the time, rich in materiality, the view direct and without fear, and would be a good and impressive showcase for his skills. The rigid dichotomy of the work, as well as the pyramidal composition, also convey strength and a sense of aesthetics.

The blasphemous connotation of appearing here like a holy icon, first and foremost like Jesus himself, which is sometimes read into the painting today, was certainly not intended by Dürer. Rather, Dürer expresses through this choice his self-image as the second creator after God. He also embodies herewith a confession of faith. For the Bible calls us again and again, as for example in Romans 8:29, to take Jesus as a model and to become like him: "29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters." Dürer, of course, took this very literally.

Albrecht Dürer - Self-portrait with fur-trimmed rope

Oil on wood, 67.1 x 48.9 cm, 1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Unknown artist - Jesus Christ

6th century, 84,9 x 45,5 cm


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