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

Portrait of Hieronymus Holzschuher

Oil on panel, 51 x 37 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Inscription in the top left: HIERONIMVS HOLTZSHVER ANNO DO[MI]NI 1526 AETATIS SVE 57; to the right, near the head, monogrammed.

Dürer painted this portrait in Nuremberg in 1526, when the sitter was 57 years old. Hieronymus Holzschuher (1469-1529) came from an old Nuremberg patrician family. In 1500 he was elected junior, and nine years later senior burgomaster. In 1514 he ranked as one of the seven Elders of the city government, and on his death in 1529 a commemorative medal bearing his profile was struck. Holzschuher was a fearless champion of the reformation movement in Nuremberg. In Dürer, who was only slightly younger, he found both a sympathizer and a friend. When the painter visited the Netherlands in 1521, he bought presents for Holzschuher, a fact which he noted in his diary.

The artist has filled almost the whole of the upper half of the panel with his subject's powerful head, for which the upper part of the body, clad in heavy fur, seems merely to serve as a plinth, attention being focused on the features. In this portrait Dürer has reproduced details with incredible fidelity. The fine brush has rendered the thick, wavy hair, which has receded somewhat over the forehead, with all the delicacy of a pen-and-ink drawing. At the same time, the face and the full lips are strongly modelled and determine the full-blooded vitality of the man. Reflected in the sitter's eyes are the window-bars of the room in which Dürer worked. Dürer himself fitted to the frame a sliding cover bearing Holzschuher's coat of arms; frame and cover are still extant in their original state and have served for centuries to protect the picture.

Dürer was renowned for his ability to paint details, such as hair, realistically and it was pictures like this which are said to have led to his famous conversation with Giovanni Bellini in 1505 or 1506. The elderly Venetian painter had asked Dürer for one of the brushes which he used to execute his painstaking portraits. Dürer then handed Bellini a brush identical to ones the Venetian artist already used. `I do not mean this, I mean the brushes you use to paint several hairs with one touch,' Bellini responded. Dürer picked up the brush and demonstrated how he painted.

In 1651 when the painter and art-historian Joachim von Sandrart was commissioned by some distinguished personality, possibly the Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria, to purchase the panel, his offer was turned down on the ground that it was intended to remain in the subject's family as a permanent memorial to him. During the eighteenth century the picture remained, well looked-after, in a groundfloor room of the family residence. Then, with the growth of romanticism in the early nineteenth century, there was a revival of interest in German painting and this famous portrait was brought out into the light of day. The new-found enthusiasm for Dürer's art made this particular portrait more popular than almost any other work of his. When it was publicly exhibited for the first time in Munich in 1869, it had already been accepted as epitomizing the old German patrician class. The portrait remained in the possession of Holzschuher's descendants in Nuremberg until it was purchased for the Berlin Gallery in 1884.