Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Albrecht Dürer, The Self-Portrait at 28

Zuzanna Stańska 26 February 2017 min Read

Albrecht Dürer loved self-portraits. In the first half of his life, he made a series of exquisite self-portraits. The earliest was made in 1484, when the artist was a precocious boy of 13. It was drawn in silverpoint. Later, he wrote in the upper right corner:

This I have drawn from myself from the looking-glass, in the year 1484, when I was still a child — Albrecht Dürer.

Albrecht Durer, Self-portrait at the age of thirteen, Albertina Museum, Vienna
Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at the age of thirteen, 1484, Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

But today we want to talk about another masterpiece. The iconic Self-Portrait, or Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar was painted early in 1500, just before Dürer’s 29th birthday. It is the last of his three painted self-portraits. It is considered the most personal, iconic and complex of his self-portraits, and the one that has become fixed in the popular imagination.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar, 1500, Alte
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar, 1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

It is also famous because it resembles many earlier representations of Christ. The religious convention here is clear: the symmetry, dark tones and the manner in which Dürer confronts the viewer and raises his hands to the middle of his chest as if in the act of blessing.

Given his idealized appearance as the underdrawing shows, his nose was originally irregular in shape – Dürer is approaching us in “imitatio Christi”, an imitation of Christ. Dürer has even painted himself with brown hair, although the other self-portraits show that it was actually reddish-blond.

Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing, 1478, Norton Simon Museum
Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing, 1478, Norton Simon Museum

In 1500 a frontal pose was exceptional for a secular portrait. Two previous Durer’s painting were painted in three-quarters view. Fully frontal poses remained unusual, although Hans Holbein painted several of Henry VIII of England and his queens, perhaps under instruction to use the pose.

The artist’s monogram, “AD,” and the Latin inscription — “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, portrayed myself in everlasting colors aged twenty-eight years” — are placed at eye-level to strengthen the effect. The year “1500” is written directly above the monogram, giving the “AD” a second meaning as Anno Domini, which further reinforces the connection between Dürer and Christ.

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