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Self Portrait With A Thistle


This portrait was painted when Durer was 22 at the end of his guild training tour of Germany. The thistle he is holding is either a pledge of fidelity to his fiancee Agnes Frey -he was supposed to marry her upon return from his tour to his home town of Nuremberg in Germany, also "thistle" in German was "mannstreu" which meant husband's fidelity. The only argument against this theory was that he may not have yet been aware of his upcoming marriage which was arranged by his father. Another interpretation of the meaning of this portrait is that it is an allusion to Christ's Passion - the spikes of his thorn-crown. This theory is supported by an inscription next to the date saying "This happens to me as is written on high". Durer painted this work in Strasbourg, France. Louvre purchased the painting in 1922.

This is one of the first independent self-portraits in Europe (meaning they weren't commissioned by anyone). In the Middle Ages the artists never depicted themselves nor signed their paintings. This changed towards the end - artists started depicting themselves in grander compositions, they'd usually be staring directly at the viewer. Though a portrait of only the artist was novel.

The composition of the portrait against the dark background was consistent of the painting tradition of the time - the pose seems a little awkward because the painter had to look at himself in the mirror. He is wearing sophisticated clothes. 

Albrecht Durer was the first painter of the German Renaissance. He was born in Nuremberg which had a lot of connections with Venice and he was also in communication with famous Italian artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini. He was patronized by the emperor Maximilian I. His work was highly influential, he also wrote treatises about mathematical proportions, principles of mathematics and perspective and his autobiography. 

Albrecht's father was a goldsmith and he trained as one in his early years after his profound talent for painting was noticed and he started training under the most successful painter of the time Michale Wolgemut at the age of 15. Also, Durer's godfather was the most successful printer and publisher of the time who owned 24 printing presses. After finishing his training with the master he went for a gap year (it was a common german tradition) to learn painting under other masters. The gap year would last for 4 years. After he returned to Nuremberg he married Agnes Frey. He lived there and journeyed to Italy and the Netherlands. He wrote four books on human proportion and four books on measurement.