Self-Portrait (Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle)

Albrecht Durer
Keywords: SelfPortraitPortraitArtistHoldingThistle

Work Overview

Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle
Artist Albrecht Dürer
Year 1493
Type Oil on vellum (transferred to canvas ca. 1840)
Dimensions 56.5 cm × 44.5 cm (22.2 in × 17.5 in)
Location Louvre, Paris

Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle (or Eryngium) is an oil painting on parchment pasted on canvas by German artist Albrecht Dürer. Painted in 1493, it is the earliest of Dürer's painted self-portraits and has been identified as one of the first self-portraits painted by a Northern artist.[1] It is currently held and exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.

The date and the plant in the artist's hand seem to suggest that this is a betrothal portrait (Brautporträt). Dürer has in fact depicted himself in the act of offering a flowering spray identified by botanists as eryngium amethystinum: its German name is "Mannestreue", meaning conjugal fidelity. Resembling the thistle (from which the portrait's title), this umbelliferous plant is used in medicine, and is regarded as an aphrodisiac.[2] It may also have religious significance; the same plant in outline form is inscribed in the gold ground of Dürer's painting Christ as the Man of Sorrows (1493–94).[3]

In 1493, Dürer was 22 years old and working in Strasbourg. He had completed his apprenticeship with Michael Wolgemut and his tour as a journeyman, and would marry Agnes Frey on 7 July 1494.[3]

Dürer was temperamentally inclined to philosophical doubts. He often analysed his own face in drawn or painted effigies – sometimes idealizing it, sometimes not. The lines written beside the date in this painting reveal the philosophical and Christian intention of the work:
Myj sach die gat
Als es oben schtat.

In other words (and liberally): My affairs follow the course allotted to them on high. Marriage has in part determined his destiny – the Bridegroom puts his future life in the hands of God.[4]

In 1805, Goethe saw a copy of this portrait in the museum at Leipzig and wrote of it:
I thought Albrecht Dürer's self-portrait, dated 1493, to be of inestimable value.[5]

According to Lawrence Gowing, who calls this "the most French of all his pictures", the Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle is singular among Dürer's paintings as "the touch is freer and color more iridescent than in any other picture one remembers".[6]

The painting was purchased by the Louvre in 1922.

This portrait of the artist was painted by Dürer when he was twenty-two years old, at the end of his trade guild tour of Germany. It is one of the very first independent self-portraits in Western painting. The thistle held by the artist is possibly a pledge of fidelity to his fiancée Agnes Frey, or perhaps an allusion to Christ's Passion (or more specifically to the spikes on the crown of thorns). 
One of the very first independent self-portraits
After serving his apprenticeship in his home town of Nuremberg, the young Dürer left to make a guild tour through southern Germany. This self-portrait dates from 1493 when he was twenty-two years old and probably in Strasbourg. In choosing to paint his own image, Dürer chose a unique subject: this was one of the very first independent self-portraits in Western painting. It is true that since the end of the Middle Ages painters had begun depicting themselves in their works (they were easily recognizable from the way they looked directly at the spectator). However, these self-portraits were only secondary elements in large compositions that usually had a religious subject.
A realistic and sophisticated portrait
This portrait takes the form of a bust seen from a three-quarters angle against a dark background, and its composition is entirely consistent with the painting tradition of the time. The pose is a little awkward because the painter has constantly had to look at himself in the mirror. He is wearing sophisticated clothes: a little red cap with pompoms and an elegant overgarment of bluish gray which contrasts with the whiteness of the chemise with its wide embroidered neckline. The face still has some of the childish features seen in his early drawing of a Self-Portrait (1484, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna), but the manly neck, the strong nose, and the vigorous hands are already those of an adult. Dürer, who was also an excellent engraver, composed his works in a very graphic fashion. The almost metallic fineness of detail, seen in the prickles of the thistle, also recalls his early training as a goldsmith.
An engagement present or an allusion to Christ?
One interpretation of this self-portrait, which is said to stem from Goethe, is that it was an engagement present for Agnes Frey, whom Dürer was going to marry on his return to Nuremberg in 1494. In fact, the thistle held by the artist is called "Mannstreu" in German, which also means "husband's fidelity." This pledge of love would also explain the elegance of the costume. The main loophole in this hypothesis is that Dürer may still have been completely unaware of the marriage, which had been arranged by his father. Combined with the inscription on the picture next to the date, "Things happen to me as it is written on high," the thistle could also be seen as a reference to Christ's Passion (or more specifically to the spikes on the crown of thorns). In this case, the work would be a forerunner of his Self-Portrait of 1500 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), in which Dürer appears as the Salvator Mundi, the Savior of the World, a Christ-like figure crowned with the glory of God. Whatever the case, this self-portrait, combining as it does an artist's pride with very human humility, reveals the new social status to which painters now aspired. Dürer here demonstrates that art had evolved from the medieval tradition to a new phase, making him the first painter of the German Renaissance.