• Beyond the Canvas

Albrecht Dürer and history's first selfie

Updated: Nov 2

“I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in appropriate colours aged twenty-eight years”. In painting himself like Christ the Saviour, Dürer is saying that he has created this painting on behalf of God. The direct gaze, the fur coat. This is a bold personal statement about his own God-given creative ability. An iconic self-portrait that needs no introduction, this arresting picture was painted by Dürer when he was only 28. Maybe he did paint himself like Jesus, but so what. Dürer was a supremely confident artist who knew his worth and created a monogram of his initials using it to sign his work. In doing so, he established a crucial and definitive separation between craftsmen and artists. The divino artista was born - not just a maker, a creator.


Self-depiction may be a mass phenomenon and a daily occurrence today, but in the 1500s it was a revolutionary act. And while a selfie on our smartphone takes mere seconds to produce and costs no money at all, Dürer invested time and money (pigments were expensive) to create his own image and make a statement about his importance as both an artist and a human being. So, what is it that we do when we decide to pose in front of our phone? Is it to capture a moment in time, create a memory, or rather to affirm our existence and hope that a mindless, repetitive gesture will somehow allow us to emerge for our uniqueness?


It's my mum's birthday today, she would have turned 87. She loved this painting (and hated selfies), and kept a postcard of it on the desk in her study, where she would sit for hours penning letters in her illegible (for most) handwriting and reading the news. If I close my eyes, I can still see her cutting out articles from the papers with this really long and shiny pair of scissors. She'd then put the cuttings aside for me so I could read them on my next visit. They were mostly of exhibition reviews. "Go and send me photos, then write about it" she'd say.


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Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe, 1500

Alte Pinakothek, Munich

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