DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Self-portrait at 22

Oil on linen, transferred from vellum, 57 x 45 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

This is Dürer's first painted self portrait, dated 1493. It is the earliest known self portrait in European art produced as an independent painting (although earlier artists had sometimes portrayed themselves among figures in an altarpiece or fresco). A sketched self portrait, dated 1493 on the reverse, could well have been an early study for the oil painting. Dürer completed the oil painting towards the end of his travels as a journeyman, almost certainly in Strasbourg. It was originally on vellum, which would have made it relatively simple to transport, and this suggests that it might well have been sent back to Nuremberg.

Dürer inscribed at the top of the self portrait: `Things with me fare as ordained from above', a sign of his faith in God. The artist's youthful features are framed by his lanky, ginger hair, which is topped by a red tasselled cap. Beneath his grey cloak, fringed with red, he wears an elegant pleated shirt with pink ribbons. His strong nose, heart-shaped upper lip and long neck are emphasized in the painting. Using a mirror, Dürer obviously found it difficult to paint his hands and eyes, the two features which are always a challenge in a self portrait.

In his rough hands, Dürer holds a sprig of sea holly, a thistle-like plant. Its German name means `man's fidelity' and this, together with the fact that the plant was sometimes regarded as an aphrodisiac, has led to speculation that the self portrait was intended as a gift for his fiancée. While Dürer was away, his father had arranged for Agnes Frey to become his wife and they eventually married on 7 July 1494, two months after his return to Nuremberg. However, it is just as likely that the self portrait was a gift for his parents, whom he had not seen for nearly four years. One can imagine the surprise and pleasure they must have felt to receive this picture after their son's long absence. It would have been a reminder of his handsome features and further evidence of his blossoming talent.