Known primarily for his nearly unparalleled work in engraving and woodcut (and I say unparalleled because it is equal in every way to any painting or drawing), Albrecht Dürer managed to establish a mastery making paintings that, in spite of their relative scarcity, put him at the highest rank of painters, full stop. It’s no coincidence that this particular self-portrait (the middle one of three he painted in his younger years) sits in the Prado. We tend to identify the Prado as the repository of the great Spanish painters such as Goya, Velasquez, Zurbaran, El Greco. But surely the royals who put this collection together were equally zealous about Cranach and Bosch, who are represented by masterworks of the highest quality, and indeed by Dürer, whose small scale portrait practically warps the space around it with its psychedelic, synapse-enhancing power.
Psychedelic means, literally, “mind evident”, and surely this work is as revealing about the psyche of the artist as any other. What is so significant about this particular painting is that it may be the first true self-portrait, one that examines the mind and the ambition of the young artist. Painted after his first trip to Italy in 1494-5, the influence of Italian Portraiture is obvious, yet the work is utterly Northern European. The inclusion of the hands (the hands dressed in the finest deerskin gloves, but more on that later), the architectural setting with a brilliant landscape, which includes farmland, a waterway, and snowy mountains, and the bold stripes of the sleeves and neckline of the jacket, repeated in the soft leather hat with tassels (and repeated again in the braided cord that holds the cape over his left shoulder), are all visual devices of Italian invention. But Dürer, in his execution of the textures and weights of the materials of the clothing, in the finishes on the window frame and walls, in the nearly perfectly rendered and teased out cascading hair, wants to say, yeah, I went to Italy, and I can do this–but I can do it better. He is saying this not out of arrogance, but out of ambition, and a very healthy ambition at that. He wants those who see this painting to know how he feels about himself as an artist, and as a person who is to be respected for his vision and his skills.
This goldsmith’s son wants to show his father (among many others) that his life’s work is worthy of respect, and he does this in the most audacious way: he commissions his own portrait as a gentleman. Here are his own words, written in 1506 in a letter from Venice: “How I shall freeze after this Sun! Here I am a Gentleman, at home only a parasite.” Look at the finery he clothes himself in, the tunic crested by golden lacework. The deerskin gloves, a typical sign of status in Nuremberg at the time. But look, most of all, at the seriousness of his gaze, both haughty and humble, and note the irregularity of his rendering of his own eyes, one leveled at the viewer, just behind the nose, and the other, open a bit wider, and looking just over our own left shoulder. He’s telling us something; I’m not entirely sure what, probably something about things having two meanings. This remarkable painting is about a mind manifesting, supremely confident, but it’s also about a mind scrutinizing itself. This is, after all, what all artists do, to this day. Dürer was one of the first, and still, one of the best.
The inscription reads: Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt/Ich war sex und zwanzig jor alt. (I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years old).
James Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 29 x 22 3/4 inches, Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, Courtesy Pace Gallery