The Genius of Albrecht Dürer Revealed in Four Self-Portraits

Age 13:


The Ger­man artist Albrecht Dür­er (1471–1528) was one of the great­est fig­ures of the North­ern Renais­sance. As a draughts­man and painter, he rivaled his elder con­tem­po­rary Leonar­do Da Vin­ci, and his mas­ter­ful wood­cuts and engrav­ings of myth­i­cal and alle­gor­i­cal scenes made him famous across Europe.

In the first half of his life, Dür­er made a series of exquis­ite self-por­traits. The ear­li­est (above) was made in 1484, when the artist was a pre­co­cious boy of 13. It was drawn in sil­ver­point. Some­time lat­er, he wrote in the upper right-hand cor­ner: “This I have drawn from myself from the look­ing-glass, in the year 1484, when I was still a child — Albrecht Dür­er.” The draw­ing, now in the col­lec­tion of the Alberti­na muse­um in Vien­na, was made at about the time Dür­er became an appren­tice gold­smith in his father’s jew­el­ry shop in Nurem­berg. Much to his father’s dis­ap­point­ment, he would leave the gold­smith shop about a year lat­er to become an appren­tice to the promi­nent Nurem­berg artist and print­mak­er Michael Wol­ge­mut. But the ear­ly expe­ri­ence of work­ing with the tools in the gold­smith shop would prove invalu­able to Dür­er’s lat­er work as an engraver.

Age 22:


After Dür­er fin­ished his appren­tice­ship with Woleg­mut at the age of 19, he fol­lowed the tra­di­tion of young artists and embarked on a guild tour of south­ern Ger­many to study the work of var­i­ous artists and print­mak­ers. He was prob­a­bly in Stras­bourg when he paint­ed his “Por­trait of the Artist hold­ing a This­tle” (above) in 1493. He was 22 years old. The por­trait was paint­ed in oil on vel­lum, and was past­ed on can­vas sev­er­al cen­turies lat­er. Johann Wof­gang von Goethe saw the paint­ing in 1805 at a muse­um in Leipzig and was deeply impressed. In 1922 it was pur­chased by the Lou­vre.

“The face still has some of the child­ish fea­tures seen in his ear­ly draw­ing of a Self-Por­trait,” says the Lou­vre Web site, “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.”

There are two com­pet­ing the­o­ries about the mean­ing of the paint­ing. Some schol­ars believe it was an engage­ment present for Agnes Frey, whom Dür­er would mar­ry the fol­low­ing year. “In fact,” says the Lou­vre, “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 unaware of the mar­riage, which had been arranged by his father.” A rival the­o­ry is that the this­tle rep­re­sents the crown of thorns from Christ’s Pas­sion. In any case, the artist’s inscrip­tion reads, “Things hap­pen to me as it is writ­ten on high.”

Age 26:


The sec­ond of Dür­er’s three paint­ed self-por­traits was made in 1498, when he was 26 years old and enter­ing his mature peri­od as a mas­ter artist. Dür­er had made his first of two vis­its to north­ern Italy a few years ear­li­er to study Ital­ian art and math­e­mat­ics. While there, he was impressed and grat­i­fied by the ele­vat­ed social sta­tus grant­ed to great artists. In Ger­many he had been looked down upon as a low­ly crafts­man. “How I shall freeze after this sun!” Dür­er wrote home to his friend Willibald Pir­ck­heimer from Italy. “Here I am a gen­tle­man, at home only a par­a­site.” Upon his return to Nurem­berg, Dür­er assert­ed his new sense of social posi­tion. In the por­trait above he depicts him­self as some­thing of a dandy, with flam­boy­ant dress and a haughty bear­ing. The paint­ing was made in oil on a wood pan­el, and now resides in the Museo del Pra­do in Madrid.

Age 28:


The Christ-like self-por­trait above was paint­ed in 1500, short­ly before Dür­er’s 29th birth­day. The paint­ing was made in oil on a wood­en pan­el, and is now in the col­lec­tion of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Unlike his ear­li­er self-por­traits, which were com­posed in the cus­tom­ary three-quar­ters view, Dür­er’s self-por­trait of 1500 depicts the artist faced square­ly toward the view­er — a pose usu­al­ly reserved at that time for images of Christ. His hand, touch­ing the fur col­lar of his coat, brings to mind the ges­tures of bless­ing in reli­gious icons. The high­ly sym­met­ric com­po­si­tion draws atten­tion to the eyes, which gaze direct­ly at the view­er. The artist’s mono­gram, “AD,” and the Latin inscrip­tion — “I, Albrecht Dür­er of Nurem­berg, por­trayed myself in ever­last­ing col­ors aged twen­ty-eight years” — are placed at eye-lev­el to strength­en the effect. The year “1500” is writ­ten direct­ly above the mono­gram, giv­ing the “AD” a sec­ond mean­ing as Anno Domi­ni, which fur­ther rein­forces the con­nec­tion between Dür­er and Christ. The art his­to­ri­an Joseph Koern­er has sug­gest­ed that the entire com­po­si­tion, from the tri­an­gu­lar out­line of the frontal like­ness to the curve of Dür­er’s fin­gers, echoes the over­ar­ch­ing “A” and nes­tled “D” of the artist’s mono­gram. “Noth­ing we see in a Dür­er is not Dür­er’s,” writes Koern­er, “mono­gram or not.”

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Comments (17)
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  • Doug Slavin says:

    Notice the length of his index fin­ger and of all his fin­gers. Per­haps that allowed him the del­i­ca­cy of his art.

  • Alexov says:

    This item has led me to the wikipedia page about Dür­er ( He was a giant among artists and the Ital­ians have real­ly done a pub­lic rela­tions job on the world: every­one knows of Leonar­do and Michae­lan­ge­lo, who lived at the same time as Dür­er, but most peo­ple have not even heard of him. Shame, shame, shame. I high­ly rec­om­mend the wiki page for any­one inter­est­ed in find­ing out how Dür­er was also an intel­lec­tu­al, with a keen inter­est in the­ol­o­gy, as well as an author of sev­er­al books.

  • James O. says:

    ClIn­ter­pre­ta­tions may dif­fer as to what this represents.ose exam­i­na­tion of the extend­ed fin­ger in the por­trait at age 13 will reveal a faint out­line just behind it

  • James McC. says:

    The self-por­trait of Dur­er wear­ing a fur col­lar is one of my favourites. I spent over an hour gaz­ing at it in the Ault Pinakotek. I recent­ly saw a film in which there was a por­trait depict­ing a hand with the fin­gers held in a sim­i­lar, some­what unusu­al and awk­ward posi­tion. They referred to it as a secret hand sym­bol for “The Word of God” pos­si­bly, orig­i­nal­ly used used by the Knights Tem­plar. Has any­one else heard of this hand sym­bol or does any­one know any­thing about Dur­er’s reli­gious affil­i­a­tion? Was he involved in any secret reli­gious sect? Per­haps high­er lev­el Masons might know of this hand sym­bol.

  • James McC. says:

    Sub­se­quent to my com­ment last evening, I now recall that the film to which I referred was an episode of the Tele­vi­sion series about Oak Island where there is a deep shaft and a flood­ed under­ground cham­ber that is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to exca­vate. It is hypoth­e­sized that it was engi­neered and con­struct­ed in the 1500’s to store the Arc of the Covenant which was brought to the island by Christo­pher Colum­bus. Var­i­ous Tem­plar and oth­er sym­bols and arti­facts have been dis­cov­ered about the site. The pro­gram also men­tioned the por­trait to which I referred in my pre­vi­ous post­ing. It is a por­trait of Christo­pher Colum­bus in which he is mak­ing a sim­i­lar hand sig­nal, “The Word of God.” The time peri­od of the two paint­ings match­es. I won­der if this “secret” sig­nal was pop­u­lar dur­ing the era or if it was only used by mem­bers of a reli­gious fra­ter­ni­ty. I would like to learn more.

  • Becky Link says:

    I just pur­chased a print with the same AD sym­bol and above it 1521. It looks to be a young woman or girl. Can any­one tell me any­thing about it?

  • angie says:

    I have the paint­ing of Dur­er from when he was 22 years old an we are try­ing to fig­ure out if it is real.…can any­one help me..thankyou

  • stephan self says:

    I am search­ing for self por­trait no 4 on byssus. Where to look?

  • Yassaro says:

    Hi Angy,

    I have a friend who is almost an expert for those paintings.probably he can say some­thing on what you have.
    Btw if its real then you have a for­tune in your advise is to take some pho­tos and show the pho­tos first then if any pos­i­tive feedback,you would need to go ahead.

  • Yassaro says:

    Hi ang­ie,

    If you can send some detailed pho­tos I can ask to an expert friend of mine and he might say some­thing at the end of the day you would need to bring it to a lab­o­ra­to­ry and hope­ful­ly you are locat­ed in Europe:))

  • Nick says:

    Dur­er paint­ed or drew him­self many times. In addi­tion to these, he makes “guest appear­ances” in “Piper and Drum­mer”, “The Men’s Bath­house”, and “Mar­tyr­dom of the Ten Thou­sand” for exam­ple, and like­wise depict­ed him­self in “Man of Sor­rows”, and a nude self por­trait.

  • boop jr. says:

    ya yeet my bois

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  • boop sr. says:


  • fartface says:

    hes amaz­ing

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