Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Albrecht Durer's "Self-Portrait At 28"

While we were in Munich, we visited the Alte Pinakothek, one of the world’s very greatest painting galleries.

The Wittelsbachs, rulers of Bavaria for more than 700 years, were supreme connoisseurs and collectors of art. Practically every painting in the Alte Pinakothek—which is more or less the Wittelsbach family collection—is a top-tier masterpiece by a top-tier artist.

The Alte Pinakothek owns 10,000 paintings, of which no more than 900 are on display at a given time. Its collection may be the world’s single finest painting collection.

The first painting I encountered at the Alte Pinakothek that totally seized my attention, positively riveting me to the floor in front of the painting, was in Gallery Two. The painting was Albrecht Durer’s “Self-Portrait At 28”, the fifth and final of Durer’s self-portraits.

I could not tear myself away from the painting—and neither could my father, who is not an art-lover. My father said it was the first painting he had ever seen that moved him deeply.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Self-Portrait At 28
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Oil On Panel
26 1/4 Inches By 19 1/4 Inches

Durer lived and worked in Nuremberg, the largest and most important city in Germany at the time of the Early and High Renaissance. Not only was Nuremberg Germany’s commercial center during the Early and High Renaissance, it was also Germany’s cultural center. Numerous important painters worked in Renaissance-era Nuremberg, but Durer, clearly, was the greatest of them all. In fact, Durer was the greatest painter Germany has ever produced.

In the years immediately prior to painting “Self-Portrait At 28”, Durer traveled to Venice several times, on one trip spending two years in the city on the lagoon. Durer befriended several Italian painters, most notably Giovanni Bellini, whom Durer believed to be the greatest of all Italian masters.

Bellini reciprocated the sentiment: Bellini believed Durer, although only in his twenties, to be a greater painter than any of the Italian masters, including Bellini himself.

Durer blended the finest aspects of Netherlandish painting and Italian painting, the two leading schools of the time. From the Dutch, Durer learned his astonishing command of detail. From the Italians, Durer learned his extraordinary subtlety of color and line.

“Self-Portrait At 28” is universally acknowledged to be Durer’s finest painting. Moreover, it is generally regarded to be the finest German painting ever created.

The work was painted in 1500, a Centennial Year. Almost all of the great Renaissance artists made a point of creating special religious works in honor of the Centennial Year. Durer was unique in that his great Centennial Year project was not a religious painting but a self-portrait.

Nonetheless, the religious undertones in the painting are self-evident: Durer paints himself to resemble a Christ-like figure.

Durer in no way intended this painting to be blasphemous, and it has never been taken to be blasphemous. Durer wished to remind the viewer that God created both Christ and man in God’s own image, and that artistic beauty is, perforce, a tribute to the glory of God.

In the painting, the different textures of Durer’s clothing are amazing to behold, as are the textures of his skin and hair. The photograph above cannot begin to suggest how finely-detailed—and subtle—Durer’s technique was.

Further, in person, the painting positively glows. The canvas possesses a sheen and a magnetism that are unforgettable.

It is the gaze of the artist, however, that most rivets the viewer. A single glance at Durer’s eyes, and the viewer cannot help but stare into this man’s eyes and search this man’s face, trying to ascertain what special qualities reside within the heart and soul of this most compelling and civilized figure.

The painting’s inscription: Thus I, Albrecht Durer, from Nuremberg, painted myself, with indelible colors, at the age of 28 years.

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