Albrecht Dürer - Inventing the Selfie

Oriental archer on horseback, by Albrecht Durer, pen, brush and watercolor, sheet 35 verso, 1514
Albrecht Dürer's technical abilities and craftsmanship were outstanding. DEA / G. CIGOLINI / VENERANDA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA-De Agostini Picture

Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528, is undoubtedly one of the most famous German artists of all times. But besides his great paintings, he is known for practically inventing the logo. As a signature on his paintings, he did not simply use his name but created a unique trademark. The “D” within the large “A”, is something many Germans immediately recognize even in modern days. And on top of that, Dürer basically invented the Selfie – and that was in the 15th century.

The Artist is the Hero – Albrecht Dürer, Renaissance Man

To be more serious: of course, Albrecht Dürer did not invent our youths favorite pastime – taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones. But, he did paint an awful lot of self-portraits, making it clear, that he was very fond of himself as an artistic object. Actually, he was the first European Artist to ever paint this many self-portraits. Some of these self-portraits are so well known, that you would probably recognize Dürer, even if you have never heard of him until now.

The artistic period Albrecht Dürer worked in is now called the renaissance. In this era, the value of the artists increased and painters or musicians became the heroes of their respective fields, granting them greater access to societies higher classes. Dürer can be used as an excellent example of the renaissance artist, as he was one of the first painters to sell his work all over the European continent, using new methods of distribution that had been created since the invention of the printing press around 1440. This isn’t the only example that proves Dürer’s economic efficiency. In opposition to many of his contemporary colleagues, he was not depending on the whims of a single patron. He became enormously successful (within his lifetime), because he was able to create art, that was in high demand.

Dürer was part of high society, he was a frequent guest at the court and had comprehensive knowledge of many aspects of life. He really is, in the sense of the word, a Renaissance Man.

Right Place and Time

Interestingly enough, Albrecht Dürer’s career could have turned out quite differently. In his youth, he was first trained as a goldsmith, because it was his father’s profession. But his training as a painter and the close familial proximity to one of the most successful printers and publishers in Germany (his godfather) helped him on his way to becoming a German national treasure.

Dürer grew up in Nuremberg in Southern Germany. The city was frequently visited by the traveling German Emperors and lived through a prosperous period when young Albrecht roamed its streets. Great intellectual input was combined with an international flair and good business relationships throughout Europe. Albrecht Dürer was the first to do a lot of things in an era of invention and creativity. He was the first of the great European artists to print and thus to mass-produce his work while using the new and faster distribution methods to sell them.

Soon he left Nuremberg and traveled Germany to develop new markets for his artworks. His illustrations of parts of the bible were highly successful – so close to the year 1500, many people believed the end of the world was near. But of course, Albrecht Dürer could not have been so successful without having been such a highly skilled artist. His technical abilities and craftsmanship were outstanding. He e.g. was an expert in carving copper, which is a very difficult discipline.

The German Artist – Reception and Repurpose

Even though Dürer’s art isn’t displaying overly patriotic tendencies (apart from some of his works for specific patrons), later recipients attributed immanent German qualities to his paintings. This specific reception sparked an Albrecht Dürer revival, every time German nationalism was a la mode. The first Dürer museum was opened after the end of Napoleon’s occupation of Germany and the rise of a German nationalism. His paintings later inspired Richard Wagner, who was a darling of the Nazi elite during the Third Reich. And the Führer himself adored Dürers work too. Actually, some of Dürers work was used in national socialist propaganda campaigns.

But Albrecht Dürer and his work should not be judged by something on which he had no influence. Nonetheless, he was an enormously influential artist, who shaped the art and perception of his time.