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Work Self-Portrait or Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle

Department of Paintings: German painting

Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

Paintings
German painting

Author(s):
Collange Adeline

This portrait of the artist was painted by Dürer when he was twenty-two years old, at the end of his trade guild tour of Germany. It is one of the very first independent self-portraits in Western painting. The thistle held by the artist is possibly a pledge of fidelity to his fiancée Agnes Frey, or perhaps an allusion to Christ's Passion (or more specifically to the spikes on the crown of thorns).

One of the very first independent self-portraits

After serving his apprenticeship in his home town of Nuremberg, the young Dürer left to make a guild tour through southern Germany. This self-portrait dates from 1493 when he was twenty-two years old and probably in Strasbourg. In choosing to paint his own image, Dürer chose a unique subject: this was one of the very first independent self-portraits in Western painting. It is true that since the end of the Middle Ages painters had begun depicting themselves in their works (they were easily recognizable from the way they looked directly at the spectator). However, these self-portraits were only secondary elements in large compositions that usually had a religious subject.

A realistic and sophisticated portrait

This portrait takes the form of a bust seen from a three-quarters angle against a dark background, and its composition is entirely consistent with the painting tradition of the time. The pose is a little awkward because the painter has constantly had to look at himself in the mirror. He is wearing sophisticated clothes: a little red cap with pompoms and an elegant overgarment of bluish gray which contrasts with the whiteness of the chemise with its wide embroidered neckline. The face still has some of the childish features seen in his early drawing of a Self-Portrait (1484, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna), but the manly neck, the strong nose, and the vigorous hands are already those of an adult. Dürer, who was also an excellent engraver, composed his works in a very graphic fashion. The almost metallic fineness of detail, seen in the prickles of the thistle, also recalls his early training as a goldsmith.

An engagement present or an allusion to Christ?

One interpretation of this self-portrait, which is said to stem from Goethe, is that it was an engagement present for Agnes Frey, whom Dürer was going to marry on his return to Nuremberg in 1494. In fact, the thistle held by the artist is called "Mannstreu" in German, which also means "husband's fidelity." This pledge of love would also explain the elegance of the costume. The main loophole in this hypothesis is that Dürer may still have been completely unaware of the marriage, which had been arranged by his father. Combined with the inscription on the picture next to the date, "Things happen to me as it is written on high," the thistle could also be seen as a reference to Christ's Passion (or more specifically to the spikes on the crown of thorns). In this case, the work would be a forerunner of his Self-Portrait of 1500 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), in which Dürer appears as the Salvator Mundi, the Savior of the World, a Christ-like figure crowned with the glory of God. Whatever the case, this self-portrait, combining as it does an artist's pride with very human humility, reveals the new social status to which painters now aspired. Dürer here demonstrates that art had evolved from the medieval tradition to a new phase, making him the first painter of the German Renaissance.

Bibliography

- EICHLER Anja-Franziska, Dürer Albrecht 1471-1528, Maîtres de l'art allemand, Könemann, 2000, pp. 18-19.

- STUMPEL Jeroen, VAN KREGTEN Jolein, "In the Name of the thistle : Albrecht Dürer's self-portrait of 1493", in The Burlington magazine, 2002, 144, 1186, pp. 14-18.

Technical description

  • Albrecht DÜRER (Nuremberg, 1471 - Nuremberg, 1528)

    Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle

  • H. 0.56 m; W. 0.44 m

  • R.F. 2382

  • Paintings

    Richelieu wing
    2nd floor
    Germanic countries, 16th century
    Room 8

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Additional information about the work

"1493 (D.H.); MIN SACH DIE, GAT ALS ES OBEN SCHTAT" (top center)