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Portrait of Barbara

Albrecht Durer

Portrait of Barbara

Albrecht Durer
  • Date: 1490
  • Style: Northern Renaissance
  • Genre: portrait
  • Media: oil, panel
  • Tag: female-portraits
  • Dimensions: 47 x 35.8 cm
  • Order Oil Painting
    reproduction

Portrait Diptych of Dürer's Parents (or Dürer's Parents with Rosaries) is the collective name for two late-15th century portrait panels by the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer. They show the artist's parents, Barbara Holper (c. 1451–1514) and Albrecht Dürer the Elder (c. 1427–1502), when she was around 39 and he was 63 years. The portraits are unflinching records of the physical and emotional effects of ageing. The Dürer family was close and Dürer may have intended the panels either to display his skill to his parents or as keepsakes while he travelled soon after as a journeyman painter.

They were created either as pendants, that is conceived as a pair and intended to hang alongside each other, or diptych wings. However this formation may have been a later conception; Barbara's portrait seems to have been executed some time after her husband's and it is unusual for a husband to be placed to the viewer's right in paired panels. His father's panel is considered the superior work and has been described as one of Dürer's most exact and honest portraits. They are among four paintings or drawings Dürer made of his parents, each of which unsentimentally examines the deteriorating effects of age. His later writings contain eulogies for both parents, from which the love and respect he felt toward them is evident.

Each panel measured 47.5 cm x 39.5 cm (18.7 in x 15.6 in), but the left hand panel has been cut down. They have been separated since at least 1628, until Barbara's portrait—long considered lost—was reattributed in 1977. The panels were reunited in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum's 2012 exhibition "The Early Dürer".

The three-quarter view was widely used in southern German portraiture of the late-15th century. Rosary beads were often included to indicate the piousness and modesty of the sitters, although by the 16th century religious motifs and sentiments like this were falling out of fashion. Dürer distinguishes himself from his contemporaries through his tight and detailed focus on his parents' faces, a technique that draws comparison to the work of the first generation of Early Netherlandish painters active 50 years earlier. Albrecht the Elder had travelled to Flanders and from working with Netherlandish artists had acquired a strong appreciation for the work of both Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. That he passed on this influence to his son is evident from the early use of silverpoint, a medium which according to Erwin Panofsky requires "an exceptional degree of confidence, accuracy and sensitive feeling for its successful handling".

Dürer would have been aware of Hans Pleydenwurff's portrait of the ageing Count Georg von Lowenstein, through his teacher Michael Wolgemut. Pleydenwurff's portrait was in turn likely influenced by van Eyck's 1438 Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati. Von Fircks believes the portrait of Dürer's father took from Pleydenwurff's portrait, which she describes as a "highly detailed representation of [a] white haired old man, who defies the pains of growing old with an alert mind and an inner animation".

Von Fircks notes that Dürer's 1484 self-portrait was created with the use of a mirror while his most iconic work is a self-portrait; the 1500 Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight. From these she concludes that the "accurate observation and documentary recording" of both his own and his parents' appearances over time was not just a compulsion, but that is indicative of a deeper interest in the effects of time and age on human appearance. Although Dürer was fascinated by the effects of ageing on others, he seems to have had some hesitancy at examining how it might affect him personally. The self-portraits tend to be idealised and the 1500 portrait was his last. Later self-portraits are far more understated and executed in a 'secondary' media, such as his drawings of the Man of Sorrows and nude drawing of 1505, which depicted an emaciated body during the time of the plague.

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