Masterpiece: Staring Dürer in the Face (Wall Street Journal)

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Blog note: Here today, gone tomorrow? Original Wall Street Journal article posted below in full due to ephemeral nature of WSJ online access. I first learned of Albrecht Dürer (read Wikipedia article) in my cartography coursework at university. He’s got some killer engravings from the 1500s.  Read the original on WSJ…

His Self-Portrait From 1500 Dares You to Turn Away

By JUDITH H. DOBRZYNSKIMarch 15, 2008; Page W16

It has no title, and it occupies no grand place of honor at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, where it’s just one painting hung among many, and many larger, works in an undistinguished second-floor gallery. But Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait from 1500 would likely stop you dead in your tracks even if it did not play an important role in art history: It is a captivating, lush painting with a mysterious air that practically dares you to stop looking at it. No compendium of self-portraiture would be complete without it. In his book “The Greatest Works of Art in Western Civilization,” Thomas Hoving, the controversial former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (whose eye is unassailable even if his provocations are not), called the picture “the single most arrogant, annoying and gorgeous portrait ever created.”

Before Dürer, born in 1471, if artists depicted themselves at all, they kept their images anonymous. Egyptian artists, for example, drew themselves as background characters at least as early as 1400 B.C. By the end of the Middle Ages, artists had begun to show themselves as witnesses or subsidiary characters, perhaps as a bystander saint; occasionally, they moved to the foreground — as in 1433, when Jan van Eyck is thought to have painted himself in “Portrait of a Man in a Turban” but true to past practice did not label, or sell, the work as a self-portrait.

[Durer portrait]

Then along came cocky young Dürer, who first drew himself at age 13. With each portrayal that followed, he showed himself gaining in stature and elegance. In a 1493 painting, clearly labeled as a self-portrait, he wears a red, tassled cap and refined, somewhat aspirational clothing and holds a few flowers. In 1498, he has grown more assured, more natural, more genteel: He poses beside a window, turned slightly to his audience, in garments trimmed with gold lace.

In 1500, a bolder-still Dürer made his stunner: This time, Dürer faces front — a rarity at the time — and he stares directly, intensely at the viewer. His face, slightly elongated, is symmetrical; his long curly hair tumbles down onto a rich, velvety brown cloak, trimmed in fur. His right hand, Dürer’s creative hand, extends upward, as if it may be about to gesture, perhaps give a blessing. The light falls unevenly on him, also highlighting his right side and enhancing the painting’s realism. To his left, Dürer inscribed the painting: “Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colors at the age of 28 years.”

To viewers of his era, the image is unmistakably Christ-like. Both confident and self-conscious, sensuous and spiritual, Dürer’s work was destined to become an icon.