Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Self-Portrait at 28 by Albrecht Dürer

Zuzanna Stańska 6 January 2023 min Read

Albrecht Dürer loved self-portraits. In the first half of his life, he made a series of them. The earliest is from 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 13, 1484, Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria.

But today we want to talk about another masterpiece, the iconic self-portrait, or Self-Portrait at 28 Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar, which was painted early in 1500, just before Dürer’s 29th birthday. It is the last of his three painted self-portraits. According to art historians, it is 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 28 Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar, 1500, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at 28 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, the 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.

He idealized his appearance. As the other drawing shows, his nose was originally irregular in shape. Dürer is approaching us in “Imitatio Christi,” an imitation of Christ. He 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, Pasadena, CA, USA.

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

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 “AD” giving it a second meaning as Anno Domini, which further reinforces the connection between Dürer and Christ.

Recommended

Ten Symbols of Longevity, Joseon Dynasty, ca 1866-1910, ink and color on silk, Ewha Womans University Museum, Seoul, South Korea. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Ten Symbols of Longevity

Ten Symbols of Longevity is a landscape masterpiece of Korean art. It is a beautiful world filled with earthly perfection and cosmic energy. The...

James W Singer 30 January 2023

Cornelis Saftleven, Who Sues for a Cow?, 1629, oil on wood panel, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Who Sues for a Cow by Cornelis Saftleven

Who Sues for a Cow is a masterpiece of social commentary by now-forgotten artist, Cornelis Saftleven. It is a strange painting from the Dutch Golden...

James W Singer 16 January 2023

Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church

Aurora Borealis is an American national treasure. It explores the relationship between the land, its viewer, and its destiny. It is a masterpiece of...

James W Singer 9 January 2023

Claude Monet, Magpie, 1868-69, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Magpie by Claude Monet

Magpie is a masterpiece by Claude Monet that captures the poetic play of light upon a winter landscape. It is a symphony of ivory and...

James W Singer 5 January 2023