Self-Portrait (1500) by Albrecht Dürer. Located in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.
Alexander Pope said that "the proper study of mankind" is man. If that is true, then it seems reasonable that the proper subject of mankind’s art is also (or should be) man. That would mean that all art is really about the artist who made it, and therefore about human beings generally. (Modernists propose that the proper subject of art should be art, but that is like saying that books should be about paper and ink, which would tend to limit their appeal to book-binders.)
The Fourth Wall
Of all the genres of visual art, the one that most clearly showcases its human subject is the portrait—and especially the self-portrait. In the art of portraiture the human capacity for visual learning and attaining self-knowledge by imitation and self-representation is obvious: We often learn best by seeing ourselves being ourselves. It is a form almost as old and as universal as art itself: The ancient Romans alone carved up untold heaps of marble into busts of their emperors, their heroes, and ordinary citizens, and the contemporary reality television program is its latest (and most obnoxious) incarnation.
Yet surprisingly, except for a few doubtful and rudimentary examples of self-portraits from the ancient and medieval worlds, artists do not seem to have directed their imitative inclinations or skills toward themselves until well into the Renaissance era; the written autobiography has a far longer history.
Among the first painters to have devoted particular attention to his own likeness was Albrecht Dürer, the great exponent of the Renaissance in Germany.
Medieval artists before Dürer occasionally allowed their painted replicas into the periphery of their compositions. They were usually depicted in profile, with generic features, and stationed literally at the margins of the picture; they appear as pious observers of sacred events like the Crucifixion. They are contemporary witnesses—designed more to encourage the viewer’s devotion through imaginative substitution than to reveal the artist’s true countenance; they were, in effect, portraits of Everyman.
Soon enough, however, these artist-observers begin to show more distinctive features. Even more significantly, they begin to "break the fourth wall"—turning to face out of their flat pictorial world to look at their real-world counterparts. Their eyes meet ours in a gesture that both betrays them as independent, self-aware beings, and removes them from direct involvement in the sacred action going on around them.
Finally, sometime in the 1400s, the artist’s likeness expands to fill the entire canvas, as Dürer’s does in the especially bold example seen here.
Through a Glass Clearly
The tardy arrival of the self-portrait can be accounted for, perhaps, by the slow improvement of its irreplaceable accessory: the mirror. Without an accurate reflecting surface (or some other technology), the self-portrait is impossible.
The ancients managed to contrive mirrors from discs of polished stone or metal, but these were costly, the metals were prone to tarnish, and they were none-too-reflective. The Romans learned how to coat blown glass with lead or gold, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that the flat glass mirror, with a reflective layer of tin-mercury amalgam, was perfected by Venetian artisans. These were extremely expensive and achieved wider use only in the 17th century, when the monopoly on their manufacture was broken.
The scarcity and indifferent quality of early mirrors may well explain why the earlier self-portraits were small and more like standardized faces with a tacked-on name than recognizable individuals: "For now we see in a mirror dimly . . . "
But technological limitations can answer for the self-portrait’s delayed appearance only so far. After all, mirrors good enough to have been useful as mirrors would surely have been good enough to paint from as well. What seems to have been lacking among artists was the will.
Arrival of the Self
Here we come up against the stereotype of the creative person as a narcissistic and vainglorious egotist. It is a modern invention, and hardly fair to any number of quiet and diligent workers, but it characterizes the sort of person who would deem his likeness worthy of being immortalized in art. (It also hints at why portraits of artists by other artists are hard to come by.) But are we to suppose that self-centeredness (or mere self-awareness) was entirely lacking among pre-Renaissance artists?
Perhaps humility really did prosper in medieval Christian Europe: Bl. Fra Angelico is the model of the humble artistic servant of God, and there were others like him.
Perhaps too it was economically unfeasible for artists to produce work whose only market was themselves. Certainly artists long had been menial (if talented) laborers, "faceless" workers contracted to embellish castle or church. Their personalities and exploits, to say nothing of their likenesses, would be of little interest to anyone but themselves.
Whatever the case, the tranquil medieval artisan, stirred by the blandishments of humanism, eventually awoke to become the self-aware, "heroic" Renaissance genius, who counted himself fully deserving of worldly fame and recognition. With robust confidence, these aspiring masters looked to be numbered among gentlemen and the learned as equals, able to haggle terms with princes and popes.
Imitation of Christ
So when we see Dürer, born into a large family of modest means (his father was a goldsmith, he one of as many as 18 children), we see an ambitious representative of this new breed, eager to present himself as a person of substance.
In 1500, when he made this piece, Dürer had recently returned from Italy, where he had been frankly impressed with the progress his Italian peers had made toward reinventing themselves. Germany appeared to him backward in comparison: Writing a friend some years later while on another Italian visit, he lamented, "Here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite."
His mortification no doubt is the reason why he does not portray himself, as was the fashion among his southern contemporaries, with any of the artist’s trappings in this or any of his half-dozen or so self-portraits. Instead, he wears the fur-trimmed clothes of a wealthy man, and gives himself a dramatically symmetrical, frontal, indeed confrontational pose, with a bearing so noble and idealized as to make him seem like a divine figure.
Is this the mark of a monumental, overweening ego? Maybe. Dürer was clearly fascinated with his own image, being the first artist to document himself in multiple self-portraits—at least a half dozen survive. But as an apparently devout man, raised Catholic, though sympathetic to Lutheranism, he must have known that every believer is made in, and is called to grow into, the imago Christi.
The pose he adopts here, therefore, is consciously modeled on that reserved in Byzantine and medieval iconography for the "Holy Face" of Jesus: the piercing eyes, the flowing masses of hair, the curling locks on the forehead, and the right hand prominently displayed recall especially the "Pantocrator" type of icon. Nothing mundane is allowed to distract from his majestic presence. Even the somewhat awkwardly disposed fingers allude to the traditional gesture of divine blessing. Dürer is using himself to illustrate the astonishing but by no means immodest Christian doctrine of deification.
I, Myself Made It
But Dürer also wants to highlight the specific dignity of his artistic vocation: He is a creative intelligence, superior to a mere laborer. He does not show himself engaged in the messy business of painting, or even leave any brushstrokes behind as evidence of his hands-on involvement, intimating instead that the image has come into being, like the miraculous Veronica portrait, by an immediate creative fiat.
On the other hand, to prevent any misunderstandings, Dürer doesn’t neglect to give himself explicit credit for this masterful artifact: On the dark background, level with his eyes, he inscribes his well-known monogram and a pompous Latin inscription (an indication of his claim to humanistic learning) which reads, "[I,] Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg painted myself thus, with undying [or proper] colors, at the age of 28 years."
In all, this is an audacious and extremely uncommon presentation for a self-portrait—or any ordinary portrait, for that matter. Far more common than this type of "secularized icon" is the mildly asymmetrical and less formal three-quarter view, where the head is turned gently to one side. (Interestingly, the full profile seen in earlier self-portraits is used in Byzantine art exclusively for evil characters.)
But how much does this portrayal tell about Dürer the man—or, by extension, ourselves?
Every self-portrait is an intentional self-disclosure, produced by the person who knows best who he is, and it is offered presumably to be a window onto his true character. But—can we trust his honesty and discernment? And what is he to us? Furthermore, like perceiving the divine Artist via the limited material face imprinted on his created works, characterizing the human artist from a painted likeness will inevitably entail some measure of mystery and uncertainty, because no reproduction is equal to the original.
The notion that the self-portrait is an impartial and complete record of the artist’s appearance and character cannot be long sustained, as postmodern critics have rightly noted. The face on display is really a persona, a guise the artist assumed (consciously or not) for the duration of the painting process in order to determine how he would be perceived. It is a fabricated identity, one of countless possible, which might have little or nothing to do with reality. In each of his self-portraits, Dürer projects a different image; which one is the "real" Dürer? Postmodernism would say it is futile to speculate, since the human personality is an unknowable, slippery construct of our culture. Any "truths" we might think we know about ourselves or others are protean and ambiguous. The mirror is forever dim, and there is no enduring subject to look into or out of it.
But in fact, these various faces proclaim an absolute truth about us: that we have free will. We, and the artist, are free to choose what sort of person we will be. We are souls acting within and by grace, outside of the constraints of our circumstances—as Renaissance artists showed by breaking from the role assigned them. And in the act of creation—and in creating our own image—we come to recognize our divine likeness.
Aristotle called art the mirror of nature, but it is fundamentally the mirror of man, and so ultimately, God.