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About the artwork

Wenceslaus Hollar’s print of 1645 based on a self-portrait of 1498 by Albrecht Dürer reveals the great respect felt for the German artist’s work by many collectors and artists more than 100 years after his death. It acts a mark of homage to Dürer’s great achievements as an artist and especially his achievements as a portrait painter.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the greatest artist of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. He became famed for his highly accomplished prints, which included both religious and mythological images, and for his remarkable portraits. Individual portrait paintings were still a relatively new phenomenon in Dürer’s day. Although portraits had for centuries appeared as part of larger compositions both in manuscripts and paintings, the idea of a painting that was wholly made up of a portrait was one of the great achievements of the Renaissance movement.  The quality of Dürer’s portraits helped to fashion in Northern Europe a strong tradition of portraiture. Dürer also played a significant part in developing the practice of self-portraiture. In fact, he is regarded as the first artist to have painted a stand-alone self-portrait. The only other Old Master to have produced as many self-portraits is Rembrandt (1606-69).

Dürer is known to have made at least thirteen images of himself during his lifetime. One of these, presented to the Italian artist Raphael by Dürer as an example of his work and documented by the first art historian Giorgio Vasari, no longer survives. Of the remaining twelve surviving works three are stand-alone portraits, four are portraits in larger compositions, and five are drawings. The painted portraits are always accompanied by plaques or similar inscribed with a lengthy signature. The drawings, in contrast, are private studies used to practise poses, expressions and to study physiognomy.

The three painted stand-alone self-portraits were done in 1493, 1498 and 1500. The first shows a young but confident artist and was perhaps made to send to his future wife Agnes Frey. The second painting is the one on which Hollar’s print is based. It shows a more flamboyant character than the first image. The third self-portrait is perhaps the most remarkable. In this work Dürer appears as a Christ like figure, he stands straight on to the viewer with an intense gaze. The work perhaps reflects Dürer’s acknowledgement of his artistic gift, a gift from God. Dürer made no further single-painted self-portraits after 1500 but his image is found in the following larger compositions: Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506; Martydom of the 10,000, 1508; Coronation of the Virgin – Heller altarpiece, 1509; The Holy Trinity - Landauer altarpiece, 1509.

The earliest surviving drawing by Dürer is a self-portrait. It was drawn in 1484 when Dürer was just thirteen years of age. This delicate drawing executed in silverpoint shows the head and shoulders of the young boy as he turns to the right. He holds his hands in a prayer-like position. This work is regarded as one of the most significant documents in the history of art for not only does it show the early work of an emerging genius but also holds the position of the earliest securely attributed self-portrait by any artist to have survived. It demonstrates Dürer’s precocious talent as a draughtsman but equally his interest in documenting his own history. The importance of the work for Dürer is revealed by the inscription he added towards the end of his life, ‘this I drew myself from a mirror in the year 1484, when I was still a child.’ The fact that Dürer went to the trouble of going back and inscribing the work says much about his own conscious efforts to create a history of his work. The other self-portrait drawings include two head studies and two full-figure nude studies.

Dürer had a sense of his importance as an artist and made efforts to convey this for posterity. There is evidence of this throughout his career; his use of a monogram to identify and ‘copyright’ his work, his consistency in signing his work, his use of inscriptions on his works, letters and journals, and towards the end of his life the creation of a family chronicle.  His self-portraits are a key part of this history. They have understandably captured the imagination of other artists and the general public for generations.