Self Portrait (1493) Albrecht Durer Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Self Portrait (1493), also known as Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle, is an oil-on-vellum painting that was created by Albrecht Dürer. The painting, executed when Dürer was twenty-two, is one of a series of self-portraits and captures the German artist at the time of his engagement to Agnes Frey.

It is possible that the German artist regarded the marriage, which had been arranged by the two families, as a duty that he owed to his parents and that the course of his life was no longer his to dictate. The vellum painting surface was pasted onto canvas in the 1840s and the Louvre acquired the self-portrait, measuring 57 cm by 45 cm, for its collection in 1922. The image of the youthful Dürer, standing in three quarters pose, is visible from the waist up and superimposed upon a dark background. A red hat, crowned with a shock of tassels and appearing to be knitted from wool, is worn at a slant upon the German artist's head.

The colour red, evoking images of the blood of Christ, had religious connotations in Renaissance Europe but could also represent the high social status afforded to government officials or to membership of the urban elite. A grey jacket, lined with orange and embroidered at the neckline, is worn over a white shirt that is bound at the chest with cords. Art historians believe that this self-portrait, the second of four which Dürer created in his lifetime, was a gift to his fiancé and represented an acceptance of fate or a surrender to the will of God. Arranged marriage was the norm among the families of artisans, craftsmen and merchants who formed the emerging bourgeoisie in the Imperial cities of the Holy Roman Empire and the German artist's engagement could be viewed as a type of business arrangement between the two families.

The Nuremburg-born painter, judging by his pensive and sincere expression, may not have been enthusiastic about the wedding but his obedience to God and family compelled him to accept the marriage. The identity of the thistle that Dürer holds in his left hand is open to debate and, in light of this controversy, the symbolism within the painting remains open to interpretation. Traditionalists maintain that the subject holds a sprig of sea holly, which represents marital fidelity, while revisionists claim that it is a species of thistle that is indigenous to the Balkans. It is speculated that the Balkan thistle hints at a noble, Hungarian origin of the Dürer family.