What is an artist?

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait with a Fur Collar, 1500 (66.3 x 49cm), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

I don’t intend to answer that question…perhaps there is not in any case a complete answer. I recently saw an advert for a job making sandwiches at Subway – the advert was for a ‘sandwich artist’. I laughed at the pretentiousness – but there is indeed an art to making a good sandwich. Eric Gill defined art as skill – but much is talked today about whether skill, in the sense of craftsmanship, is essential to being an artist.

I specialise in an era when craftsmanship was very much part of being an ‘artist’ – I put the word in inverted commas because it is a modern term, anachronistic to the Renaissance, the period I have researched. Even Vasari’s famous book is often mistranslated as The Lives of the Artists – when its actual title is The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The mistranslation is interesting; partly because it misses out the sense of ‘most excellent’, which was crucial to Vasari’s (and his culture’s) understanding of what art was. This brilliant and seminal work in art history continues to be misunderstood by some, but has lost none of its relevance to discussions about art. However, I am not going to discuss Vasari here! Others have done it much better.

I am going to discuss someone closer to my heart, the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, and specifically his great self-portrait of 1500, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. If I could own any painting in the world, it would be this; every time I see it I cry, every time I see it I feel closer to the man himself, every time I see it I am astonished all over again at its immediacy and its depths. It is a smallish painting, simply the face and upper body of a specific individual, dark – lots of brown and black, and darker than most of its reproductions convey – yet it contains the universe, and radiates meaning.

It is, for Dürer, the culmination of his project of self-portraiture in the 1490s. He first painted himself in 1493, as a young man on the threshold of marriage and adult life, a compelling mixture of tentativeness and glamour; this painting now hangs in the Louvre, tucked away in a dismal little room with the Holbeins and other German art, tolerated but not much more by this great gallery. The second painted portrait dates from 1498, by which time, we believe, Dürer had been to Italy; 1498 is also the year in which he published his series of woodcuts of the Apocalypse, the first ‘artist’ to publish his own work in this way, fully exploiting both the commercial aspects of printmaking and the fears of the general population, who thought the world might end in 1500. It made his reputation at an international level, and the glorious portrait, now in the Prado, represents a new confidence, elegance, cosmopolitan aspirations. He is dressed in Italianate clothes (though I note from his hat that he is a fellow Newcastle Utd supporter), with the fine gloves of a gentleman (in none of the portraits does he refer to his profession – no paintbrushes or other accoutrements of his trade – though he does conceal the painting hand in the 1500 portrait, if you realise that he is painting in a mirror, and his left hand, hidden, is in fact his right), and through the window are the Alps, over which he has travelled in both directions, and which show his interest in the world beyond Nuremberg. For all his love of art, his greatest love (as witnessed by his journals) seems to be the natural world.

Dürer, Self-portrait, 1493, Louvre
Dürer, Self-portrait, 1498, Prado

Then two years later, all of this confidence reaches a new height – the 1500 self-portrait is like no other artist’s portrait we have seen to this point. In the north, portraits were generally painted in three-quarter profile, as his first two self-portraits had been; the only person who was usually painted full face in this way was Christ. This, as scholars have pointed out over the centuries, is deliberate; Dürer has, in fact, taken the fifteenth-century tradition of paintings of Christ, from Van Eyck through Rogier van der Weyden, Memling and Schongauer, the subject of my previous blog, and used them as the model for his own portrait, the features of which he has idealised. Arrogance? Blasphemy, even? No, I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s the ultimate expression of Christian devotion in the light of his acceptance of his great talents as a painter – the painter is divine, because creativity is divine – God is a creative being, indeed the Creator, and as man is made in the image of God, the painter is endowed with this creative part of the divine.

The painter is also an intellectual – Dürer wears the kind of clothes a humanist scholar of the day would wear. He does not, as I have mentioned, give any blatant reference to his profession – and yet the whole painting is as blatant a reference as he could make. The exquisiteness of the way his own likeness is captured, including the soft fur that he plays with, the curls of his long hair, of which he was so proud, the different texture of his beard, the light in his eyes (there is also a window painted in one eye, a convention of course denoting the eye as the window of the soul), all advertises his exceptional talent.

The gesture of the fingers stroking the fur collar combines the two. In images of Christ blessing such as the Braque Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden, Christ holds up his right hand, the first two fingers raised, the thumb bent; Dürer has simply turned this gesture round so that he is pointing to himself – acknowledging his God-given gift, the blessing he has received, but also asserting his own individuality, his own personal skill and calling, its sacredness and its intellectual importance. At a time when painters were at the mercy of patrons and contracts, paid according to the price of materials and often anonymously working in workshops, Dürer is calling for the status of the painter to be much higher. A few years later he will write from Venice to his great humanist friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, that ‘here I am a gentleman, at home a parasite’. He believes in fine craftsmanship – the entire painting bears witness to this – but he also believes in the intellectual status of the painter, something we might take for granted today, but which was radical in his own time.

Rogier van der Weyden, Braque Tripych, 1452 (41 x 136cm), Louvre

[As a conduit from Rogier to Dürer, since Dürer knew his work intimately, I offer Schongauer’s drawing of Christ blessing, no doubt copied from Rogier:]

Dürer’s self-portrait continues to speak across the centuries of the power of art, both in terms of skill and concept, object and ideas. It connects us with a single individual, but makes a claim for all artists. We can look into the eyes (though he does not directly look back at us – perhaps his oce concession to being Christlike but not Christ) of one of the greatest of all western artists and see his greatness, while at the same time being reminded of all that art can and continues to do, even in a very different society. Art is not peripheral, not trivial, not a hobby or a luxury – it is an extraordinary and essential part of who we are as human beings, and how we communicate with each other. One small portrait, oil paint on wood, painted over 500 years ago, conveys all of this and so much more (I could go on, but I won’t!) with a visual economy that is inspiring, deeply satisfying, breathtaking.