This painting is a self-portrait painted by Albrecht Dürer ürer at age 22 in 1493 CE. This portrait is one of the first independent self-portraits found in Western painting during the 15th century CE [See Panofsky 1945, 14]. It has also been identified as one of the first self-portraits by a Northern Renaissance artist. [See Panofsky 1945, 14]
The thistle in the portrait is said to represent fidelity to his fiancée Agnes Frey, but is also said to be a symbol of Christ's Passion, and the same plant is found in Dürer's painting of Christ as the Man of Sorrows , which was painted in the following year [See Stumpel 2002, 6]. This painting was produced in Strasbourg, Germany during the medieval times in Europe and is currently up for display in The Louvre museum in Paris, France. The purpose of this painting is to show the transition that European artwork had in this time frame- from cultural expression and religious idolatry to self-portraits, which had artists now concentrating on detailed painting, such as details found in facial expressions, and also color contrasting found in oil painting.
This portrait was painted using different colored oil paints found in the Northern Renaissance during this time. It was originally painted on parchment paper and then later mounted onto a canvas for means of display. The portrait itself is 56.5 cm by 44.5 cm [See Piork, 32]. Oil painting is a process where pigments are bound with a type of drying oil. Commonly used types of oil during this time included linseed oil, poppyseed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. The oil, once extracted, was usually boiled with a resin (most common type was pine) to create a varnish in the oil, giving paintings a glossy finish. None of these material were rare nor expensive, but the most common type of oil used, because of easy access, was linseed oil, which is produced from flax seeds that the Europeans harvested in Northern Europe. Pine trees are also a common tree found in Europe, so resin was not difficult to attain. [See http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/self-portrait-or-portrait-artist-holding-thistle]
Oil paintings were first used for Buddhist Paintings by Indian and Chinese painters between the fifth and tenth centuries CE, and did not gain popularity in Europe until the 15th Century CE [See Panofsky 1945, 87]. There is also evidence of oil paintings being found on shields and other surfaces in Afghanistan around the fifth century CE [See Panofsky 1945, 88]. The practice is said to have migrated westward to Europe during the Middle Ages . The transition from tempera paints to oil painting in Europe began in the Netherlands, and eventually spreading across the continent. Dürer picked up the technique while he was studying in Italy, and brought back his knowledge to Germany and the north.
We can assume that Dürer's technique for painting is similar to other artists of his time. The typical brush was usually made of Hog's bristles, a technique first used in China. The specific canvas used was vellum , meaning "made from calf", and is created from the skin of calves. Other traditional artists' canvases were made from linen, but less expensive fabrics made from cotton that was agriculturally farmed in the area gained popularity quickly. One would stretch a canvas across a wooden "stretcher", allowing the canvas to be tight, making the paint stick to the canvas much easier. These technologies were not advanced for their times, because the painting techniques that the Europeans of the Northern Renaissance used were mostly adopted from China, the Middle-East, or discovered in Europe a few centuries prior to oil painting. If materials were not found in the area, such as brushes before Europeans discovered their own way of creating the bristles of a brush, common trade routes such as the Silk Roads gave easy access to items in eastern and southern Asia.
The painting was purchased by the Louvre in 1922, and is currently being displayed in their museum in Paris, France today. [See http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/self-portrait-or-portrait-artist-holding-thistle]
Local Historical ContextEdit
This painting was created in Strasbourg, Germany during the early Northern Renaissance period, with direct European influences coming from the Italian Renaissance . Between 1400-1600 CE in central Europe, there were several acts of religious upheaval, intellectual activity, and technical innovation [See Eichler 2000, 18]. The main religion in Germany during the creation of this painting is Roman Catholicism . In the early 15th century CE, the sermons of Czech cleric, along with the help of scholar Jan Hus, call for a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church, attempting to minimize the authority of corrupt church officials. [See Eichler 2000,18] The church during this time was blending religious practices too much within a state, causing several Germans to believe that the religion is corrupt. After the execution of Jan Hus in 1415, his followers, known as Hussites, were responsible for leading a series of rebellions in Bohemia that lasted until the middle of the 15th century [See Eichler 2000,18]. Also during this time period, The Hanseatic League of German merchants and towns was created, which was the most successful trading company in Europe at the time. This trading company not only increased the economic welfare of Germany, but also brought over several resources that one could use in artistic expression, such as strong cotton-bound canvases from the Middle East and painting brushes from China. This League monopolized trading in the North and Baltic seas [See Eichler 2000,19]. In 1455 CE, Johannes Gutenberg, a German printer, created the printing press, which helped with the printing, publication, and distribution of several written documents in Europe at the time.
Frederick III was the King of Germany in 1440 until 1493. He was the 4th descent from Albert I. Maximilian I ruled Germany from 1486 until 1519 and adopted the title Emperor-elect in 1508 with the Pope's approval [See http://www.sciencemag.org/content/320/5876/r-samples.full#320/5876/591d] . Majority of the people during this time period were agricultural farmers, with a large percentage of the population being peasants or serfs working in the fields. Right above this working class was a small group of people that were considered to belong to the "skilled working class" doing works with metallurgy and other labors the area needed. Most Germans at the time were illiterate, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes helped common German people learn to read and write [See Eichler 2000, 19]. Albrecht Dürer was a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist, which tells us that he was more than likely born into a family of skilled working class, because he did not participate in agricultural farming. This was a self-portrait of Dürer, which tells us that he was practicing his artwork for his own recreational use or getting his audience to know what he looks like. He was not remunerated for his labors, if at all he sold the painting to make some extra cash. Dürer did not create this in order for it to be commissioned or sold as a gift, but rather for recreational use. This painting signifies one of the earliest self-portraits seen in the Northern Renaissance, and changed the style of painting for several painters in the area and the local market.
On a wordly perspective, Dürer introduced the art of self-portraits in the Western World . He was influenced by the Italian Renaissance and brought down his teachings to Germany and other areas during the Northern Renaissance period. The words on the top of the painting, next to the date, read,
"Myj sach die gat
Als es oben schtat".
Translated into English, this reads as, "My affairs follow the course allotted to them on high" [See Stumpel 2002, 15]. Dürer was said to being a faithful husband to his wife, Agnes Frey, and he states that he would like to put his future life into the hands of God. This stanza also shows not only how serious Dürer accepted religion into his own life, but other Germans as well, with majority of Germans in this time period being faithful to Roman Catholicism. Lawrence Gowing describes this painting as follows: "The touch is freer and color more iridescent than in any other picture one remembers".
The thistle in the portrait is said to represent fidelity to his fiancée Agnes Frey, but is also said to be a symbol of Christ's Passion, and the same plant is found in Dürer's painting of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, which was painted in 1494 CE. [See Panofsky 1945, 32]
The Hanseatic League of German merchants and towns was created in the early 15th century CE, which was the most successful trading company in Europe at the time. This trading company not only increased the economic welfare of Germany, but also brought over several resources that one could use in artistic expression, such as strong cotton-bound canvases from the Middle East and painting brushes from China. This League monopolized trading in the North and Baltic seas. The painting style of Dürer possibly traveled to other painters over this trading network as well as the trading network of the Silk Roads .
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EICHLER Anja-Franziska, Dürer Albrecht 1471-1528, Maîtres de l'art allemand, Könemann, 2000, pp. 18-19. 18 Apr 2013
Piork, Natalie. "ALBRECHT DURER: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST HOLDING A THISTLE." n.pag.Nat's Renaissance Art Gallery. Database. 18 Apr 2013.
STUMPEL Jeroen, VAN KREGTEN Jolein, "In the Name of the thistle : Albrecht Dürer's self-portrait of 1493", in The Burlington magazine, 2002, 144, 1186, pp. 14-18. 20 Apr 2013.
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