Who are you, and what are you doing here? You, there in the mirror, there in the lens of your phone: What do you see?
In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands.
But the premise that an image can be an authentic representation — that you are a unique individual at all — is not self-evident. It is a historical development. It had to be invented.
More than five centuries ago, Albrecht Dürer painted images so detailed and exact that they seemed some kind of divine creation.
One subject fascinated him above all: himself.
In the year 1500, Dürer was already the leading artist of the German Renaissance, and famous across Europe as an entrepreneur of new media. He had made his name, and a small fortune, through the production and sale of woodcuts and engravings.
That year, he painted this commanding image, which hangs today in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It’s one of the earliest standalone self-portraits in Western painting — and for my two pfennigs, the greatest self-portrait ever painted: a picture that radiates authority five centuries on.
But it isn’t exactly a welcoming picture. It’s supremely arrogant. So perfect it’s almost airless, so detailed it feels fetishistic. Its symmetry and frontal orientation give Dürer the appearance, and unapproachability, of a holy icon.
He completed this self-portrait at 28, though his face has a curiously ageless aspect. His skin is bright, gently illuminated from a soft light source from the composition’s left.
His cheeks are smooth. Not full like a prosperous burgher’s, not sunken like a malnourished student’s — but solid, unblemished. Like an image of an ideal man.
His small mouth is framed by a goatee, a trimmed beard and a bell curve of a mustache. Each whisker has been meticulously flecked, thanks to the relatively new medium of oil paint. They give this self-portrait a human presence, but also an alienating exactitude.
Remember, it’s 1500. Flat mirrors are still a few decades away, and Dürer would have been looking at his reflection in a convex glass. This lifelikeness has to be calculated. The path from decoration to art goes through math.
Look how the lines of his hair weave in and out. How brighter strands and darker ones braid together in each lock.
They’re so adept that Dürer’s rivals suspected he had a special brush.
The rich, fur-lined coat is an outfit suitable for a nobleman or a scholar — not someone who works with his hands. He’s showing off his painterly skill here, picking out every bristle. But he’s also affirming that he sees himself as more than a mere technician.
See how, with his long fingers, he strokes the fur collar? How the soft brown bristles peek over his middle finger? It’s a beautiful, even perverse detail, one that plunges this pseudo-icon back into the realm of the senses.
It’s his left hand — though in the mirror it looks like his right. It’s raised over his heart, and he has even highlighted the veins that pump blood from one organ to the other.
My hand and my heart. Divine benediction and sensual caress. Who I am, and what God has made me.
And his big gray-brown eyes, slightly asymmetrical, stare straight forward.
You can even see the mullion and transom of a window reflected in the iris of his left eye.
This is not the squint of an artist at work, but a firm, interpellating gaze on the beholder. His eyes bear down with such conviction that one troubled museumgoer, a century ago, mutilated them with a hatpin. (Repaired soon after!)
What those eyes express is a new kind of lucidity. They’re the eyes of an artist who not only knows how to depict himself, but who considers himself worthy of being depicted.
He did it first at age 13. Working in his father’s goldsmith shop, Dürer made this three-quarter-length self-portrait: keen, well fed, stringy hair bundled under his hood. He scratched it out in silverpoint: an extremely difficult medium, since it allows no corrections.
At 22, having abandoned the goldsmith trade for an artist’s apprenticeship, he painted himself in the same three-quarter profile. The flesh has turned buttery, the clothes a bit richer. He holds a flower reputed as an aphrodisiac: Dürer sent this to his bride-to-be.
At 26, the artist pictured himself in luxurious getup: expensive gloves, coordinated tunic and doublet, a braid over his broad upper pecs.
And out the window, an Italianate landscape: Dürer was just back from Venice, and had ambitions that Nuremberg couldn’t contain.
Self-portraiture, at this point, was still fresh terrain. Most artists still didn’t even sign their names. During the medieval era and the first decades of the Renaissance, the artist’s person was hardly a worthy subject of depiction.
In Italy up to now, the most an artist might do would be to slip himself into the background of a crowd scene. You’d paint the Madonna, you’d sketch out the adoring magi, and then —
like Botticelli, you’d position yourself off to one side.
But by the end of the 15th century, the self-portrait has become an act of self-fashioning: how I present myself to you. Dürer’s self-portraits were not the very first, but he made himself his subject with uncommon frequency.
Even his nudes were something much more carefully worked than an anatomy lesson.
Here begins a Renaissance conception of the self that has become so commonplace we don’t even notice it: the self as a subjective individual, the author of one’s own life story. And a modern conception, too, of what it means to be an artist.
Dürer, in his self-portraits, was calling into being an image of the artist as someone with more than just technical facility. The artist needed a more humanistic inspiration, partly from books, partly from God.
I am no mere skilled craftsman, like my father, the picture says. I have imagination, I have learning, I have a gift. All of which elevate me out of the workshop and into high society — or even higher.
Of Dürer’s self-portraits, this has the most unsettling orientation, with the artist’s body flush with the picture plane. And note the background: almost pitch black, not even a shadow.
But this sort of frontal orientation, before Dürer painted himself long-haired and bright-eyed in 1500, was highly rare for a portrait.
It was usually reserved for a more august subject.
It was Christ who usually appeared in this front-facing pose. Artists used it to echo the miraculous impression of his face on the veil of Saint Veronica. Others, like Gerard David around 1500, depict him frontally as the Salvator Mundi, or world’s savior.
Dürer himself began, though never finished, a painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi in 1505. Same full-frontal orientation, same raised right hand.
The motif was popular in Italy too. (Though who knows how much Leonardo painted of this one). Against a simple background, an image of authority and grace.
What did it mean for Dürer to depict himself as the Son of God? The pious have always striven to live in imitation of Christ, though rarely this literally.
The art historian Joseph Leo Koerner offers one convincing answer: Dürer’s merger of “artist’s portrait and cult image of God,” represented an innovation of personal authorship, one that emerged precisely at the turn of the 16th century.
Dürer didn’t literally think of himself as the Second Coming. He was as pious as any other German in the years before the Reformation. Where Christ raises his hand in blessing, Dürer points his inward, and invokes his God-given gift: the gift of art.
Look at the self-portrait’s two remaining details.
First, the inscription — not in German, but high-flown Latin — lettered painstakingly, in gold, at eye level. “Thus I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, painted myself with indelible colors at the age of 28 years.”
Then, also at eye level, the date and the monogram. 1500: a new century, a turning point.
A.D.: Anno Domini, in the year of the Lord.
But also, more important: Albrecht Dürer.
Dürer plastered this monogram on everything he made. It was a newfangled thing.
He used it to signal his sole authorship of his art, after centuries when European artists worked collectively and anonymously. He used it not only on his paintings, but in a still young new medium: printmaking.
In the early 16th century Dürer made dozens of woodcuts and engravings, like this one of the melancholy Saint Jerome.
The prints made him Europe’s most famous artist outside Italy.
And each one bore the AD monogram as a mark of quality. The prints became a flourishing business, staffed by block cutters, apprentices and traveling salespeople. Dürer oversaw the production.
The AD functions, literally, as a trademark. His prints were being knocked off almost as soon as they left the shop, and Dürer went to court to stop forgers from using his monogram.
But on what grounds could he sue? How could a work of art be a “Dürer,” if Dürer’s hand never touched it?
Answer: through a new kind of authorship, born with the rise of printmaking, in which the work of art is the product of invention and skill at once.
This understanding declared an entirely new kind of individuality. One so enduring that we barely notice how bold it would have seemed in 1500.
Now it seems barely worth clarifying that artists depict themselves to tell a story about themselves — to express “what’s inside.” Like Frida Kahlo, facing front and wearing a necklace of thorns, her face the image of pride and suffering.
Or Andy Warhol, whose frontal self-portrait in his “fright wig” became his most enduring image of facing mortality.
Or, more recently, Sarah Lucas: her body straight forward, a skull between her legs. The self-portrait as a fraught pastiche of sex and death.
Their self-scrutinizing portraits now circulate online, more widely than any print could. And Dürer’s does, too, downloadable in ultra-hi-res reproductions whose precision exceeds his engravings a thousand times over.
But Dürer never sold the 1500 self-portrait. A few of Nuremberg’s educated humanists saw it, but this vision of the artist as a near Messiah stayed largely out of the public eye until just before his death, in 1528.
Nor did Dürer translate it into a print for sale. He never made a single self-portrait print, in fact.
It was painted for posterity, not public communication. His new vision of artistic individuality didn’t require public approval. For he was already establishing that every “Dürer,” even a print, carries something essential of its maker.
Dürer’s monogram and Dürer’s eyes. New learning and new media. The artist’s perception of himself and the artist’s brand offered to the world.
This self-portrait was its own legitimation, with no need for likes. It was the work of an individual already facing the future head on.
Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Gabriel Gianordoli, Laura O’Neill and Josephine Sedgwick.