The genre of self-portraiture fully developed in Western painting during the Renaissance. Dürer’s self-portraits are not only among the earliest examples of the genre, but are also some of the finest works of self-portraiture ever produced in Western art. Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight (1500) is particularly significant; it is an artistic proclamation that is deeply tied to how Durer wanted to position himself in the context of the Northern Renaissance and the Humanist movement.
The self-portrait gave Dürer the opportunity to display the breadth of his technical skill, particularly in creating the textures of his luscious hair and rich fur. It is likely that the portrait remained in Dürer’s cabinet, exhibited in private viewings to impress prospective clients and used for demonstrations to his students. In the self-portrait, the artist adorns a fashionable brown coat with a fur trim, a garment worn by 15th century noblemen. The garment is a symbol of social status, and indicates Dürer’s climb on the social ladder. This also represents the new status of artists in the Renaissance, where they were elevated from anonymity, and recognized publicly as creators and not mere craftsmen. The self-portrait is accompanied by the inscription: “I, Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg painted myself thus, with undying colors, at the age of twenty eight years”. In the Medieval era, the age twenty eight signified the transition to maturity. The inscription plays up this symbolism, signifying the artist entering a new era.
The frontal portrait is highly unusual for a secular portrait. It deliberately invites the comparison to the image of Christ, particularly to the iconography of Christ as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). The self-portrait evokes the concept of Imitatio Christi, the ideal of imitating and following the Christ. It is possible that Dürer emphasized the biblical idea that Man was created in God’s image, and through the self-portrait he was asserting that his creativity originates in divine grace. However, Dürer’s use of religious iconography also expresses humanist values. The frontal portrait exemplifies symmetry and harmony, ideals praised by ancient writers such as Cicero and Vitruvius, and promoted by Italian Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti. Dürer, and in particularly this self-portrait, were praised by German Renaissance humanist, Konrad Celtes.
Dürer and Celtes, along with other German humanists were proponents of the Northern Renaissance, and had the ambition to bring forward a cultural Golden Age. In a text addressed to Dürer, Celtes links him to Apelles, a renowned painter of Ancient Greece. Celtes called Dürer the “second Apelles”, and indeed in the self-portrait Dürer presents himself as a Christian Apelles. The dark and minimal color scheme of the self-portrait may have been inspired by Apelles, who was celebrated for his four color system of painting and his dark, glossy glaze. Therefore, Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight can be understood as an artistic statement, Dürer absorbing the praise of his contemporaries and reaffirming his position as the “new Apelles” of the Northern Renaissance.
Self-Portrait (or Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight) is a panel painting by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Painted early in 1500, just before his 29th birthday, it is the last of his three painted self-portraits. Art historians consider it the most personal, iconic and complex of his self-portraits.
The self-portrait is most remarkable because of its resemblance to many earlier representations of Christ. Art historians note the similarities with the conventions of religious painting, including its symmetry, dark tones and the manner in which the artist directly confronts the viewer and raises his hands to the middle of his chest as if in the act of blessing.
Dürer's face has the inflexibility and impersonal dignity of a mask, hiding the restless turmoil of anguish and passion within. In its directness and apparent confrontation with the viewer, the self-portrait is unlike any that came before. It is half-length, frontal and highly symmetrical; its lack of a conventional background seemingly presents Dürer without regard to time or place. The placement of the inscriptions in the dark fields on either side of Dürer are presented as if floating in space, emphasizing that the portrait has a highly symbolic meaning. Its sombre mood is achieved through the use of brown tones set against the plain black background. The lightness of touch and tone seen in his earlier two self-portraits has been replaced by a far more introverted and complex representation.
In 1500, a frontal pose was exceptional for a secular portrait. In Italy the conventional fashion for profile portraits was coming to an end, but being replaced with the three-quarters view which had been the accepted pose in Northern Europe since about 1420, and which Dürer used in his earlier self-portraits. 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. Late medieval and Early Renaissance art had developed the more difficult three-quarters view, and artists were proud of their skill in using it; to viewers in 1500 and after, a frontal pose was associated with images from medieval religious art, and above all images of Christ.
The self-portrait is of a markedly more mature Dürer than both the 1493 Strasbourg self-portrait and the 1498 self-portrait which he produced after his first visit to Italy; in both of these earlier paintings he had highlighted his fashionable hairstyle and clothing and played on his youthful good looks. Dürer turned 28 around 1500, the time of this work. In the medieval view of the stages of life, 28 marked the transition from youth to maturity. The portrait therefore commemorates a turning point in the artist's life and in the millennium: the year 1500, displayed in the centre of the upper left background field, is here celebrated as epochal. Moreover, the placing of the year 1500 above his signature initials, A.D., gives them an added meaning as an abbreviation of Anno Domini. The painting may have been created as part of a celebration of the saeculum by the circle of the Renaissance humanist scholar Conrad Celtes, which included Dürer.
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