Supreme art is
a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.
William Butler Yeats
Thus God Created Man in His Image
The first artist self-portrait
For just as the ancients gave their idol Apollo the most beautiful of
human forms, so do we desire to use the proportions for Christ the Lord,
who is the most beautiful thing in the world.
Albrecht Durer, Treatise on Human Proportions, 1528
Dimensions and figures: geometric diagrams showing
proportions for heads and faces by Villard de Honnecourt
In the Middle Ages a painter was "just" an artisan.
He enjoyed the same status as stonemasons and
woodcarvers, not to mention bakers, tanners, basket weavers and cobblers.
Painters were used to "disappearing" behind what they painted. They
usually did not even sign their work and most were soon forgotten. Then a
man appeared who was possessed of supreme self-confidence:
Born in the free imperial city of Nuremberg in Germany, he was equally
superb as a painter, a draughtsman and a woodcarver, a universal genius of
the Renaissance on a par with
Leonardo da Vinci.
An inventive and bold thinker,
was open to the Humanist currents of his day. Well aware that he was
original, talented and free, he refused to be merely an anonymous
instrument of divine inspiration. He saw himself as an artist who pursued
his own artistic aims, and had the courage to show his own face and
personality in his work. It is true that a number of artists had already
painted portraits of themselves as penitents or by-standers.
had no use for compromises. He took the self-portrait one step further and
portrayed himself as he really was, thus creating the genre of artist
self-portraits. Five earlier
self-portraits are known but the present one in which the artist is
wearing a fur coat is the most momentous.
had never before portrayed himself in such an uncompromisingly frontal
pose. The manner of self-representation he chose for this work had, until
then, been reserved for depictions of Christ or royalty. Making himself
look like Christ in this work was a deliberate statement of intention and
s firm belief that artists' creativity derived directly from God's
creative powers. In 1512 he wrote: "The high art of painting was greatly
appreciated for many centuries by mighty kings. They made outstanding
artists rich and bestowed many honours upon them since they knew that
great masters are on a level with God. A good painter is full of figures
and forms and if it were possible for him to live for ever, he would
always bring forth something new."
Self-Portrait in a Fur Coat,
built on a pyra
arrangement of planes, remained in
possession during his lifetime. Posterity views it as his monument to his
idea of what an artist really is. In translation, the Latin inscription
reads: "Thus I, Albrecht
of Nuremberg, painted myself in my own colours at the age of
(1471-1528) Self-Portrait in a
Fur-Collared Robe 1500
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
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