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Was Dürer’s father a fine artist too?

Painting long assumed to be by his famous son may be a self-portrait

Dürer’s portrait of his father (detail) may be by Albrecht the Elder himself

A portrait of Dürer’s father, which has always been assumed to be the work of Albrecht the Younger, may in fact be a self-portrait by the master’s father, Albrecht the Elder. If so, it would transform our understanding of the younger artist. He may not have been the isolated genius he is believed to have been, but the son of a talented artist who has gone unrecorded as a painter.

The new theory comes from Stephan Kemperdick, the curator of early German and Netherlandish painting at Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. He proposes it in an essay in the catalogue of the exhibition “Albrecht Dürer: His Art in Context”, at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum (until 2 February 2014).

Until now, it has been assumed that Albrecht the Younger painted a pair of portraits of his father and his mother. These are in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and Nuremberg’s Germanisches Nationalmuseum respectively. Both are believed to date to around 1490, when the young Dürer was 19. But the style of the two portraits is different: the father is depicted with much greater naturalism. Kemperdick argues against the assumption that “the same artist painted the two panels at roughly the same time”. He also says that the portrait of the father shows “astonishing similarities” with a silverpoint drawing that is accepted as a self-portrait by Dürer’s father.

Kemperdick then suggests two possibilities. Could the young Dürer have based the painting on his father’s silverpoint drawing? It seems strange, however, for an artist as talented as Dürer to have relied on anyone else’s drawing. The most likely answer is that the painting is a self-portrait by the elder Dürer. If so, it is among the earliest painted self-portraits in European art.

According to Albrecht the Younger’s family chronicle, his father, a goldsmith, spent a long time among Netherlandish “künstlern” before he arrived in Nuremberg in 1455. Scholars have debated whether the German word “künstlern”, in this context, refers to goldsmiths or fine artists. Kemperdick points out that a recent infra-red examination shows that the portrait of Dürer’s father originally had a window in the background—a feature of Netherlandish pictures. It was later painted out by the artist.

The curator argues that Albrecht the Elder developed his skills as an artist in the Netherlands but worked as a goldsmith on his return to Germany. He then painted for pleasure, making the self-portrait—and presumably teaching his even more talented son. If Kemperdick’s theory is correct, the hunt will be on for more of Albrecht the Elder’s paintings.

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