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Dürer, Self-portrait, Study of a Hand and a Pillow

Met curator Stijn Alsteens on observation in Albrecht Dürer’s Self-portrait, Study of a Hand and a Pillow (recto); Six Studies of Pillows (verso), 1493.

View this work on metmuseum.org

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

This is a drawing Albrecht Dürer made in 1493 at a threshold in his biography. He was about twenty-two, had just finished studying, about to return to Nuremburg and there become the leading artist in Northern Europe. I think he started making the drawing as a much more modest work. He wanted to study things he saw around him, much like artists before him making endless studies. They often recorded them in pattern books that could be used and re-used. But Dürer makes it into something entirely personal, in choosing his own head with all its beauty and imperfections. And observes so correctly: the glance, the self-confidence, and I especially like the little hair on his chin that add a kind of biographical note. One has a feeling we would recognize him in the crowd. All kinds of aesthetic decisions are taken that really make the jump from an observation to a work of art. The way especially folds end, most apparent in the pillow. The way he decides not to draw his lower body and just focus on his head. The combination with his hand. He is an artist working with his hands. He does create something of a composition. Instead of it being three isolated studies, somehow, he makes it into something that almost looks like one body, which creates a harmony that you wouldn’t expect at first. And then he turned the sheet and made six studies all of the same pillow, I’m sure, in slightly different forms. And you can almost look at this as a kind of story with a pillow --as in a comic strip-- walking or dancing. What keeps me coming back to it and of which it is such a beautiful example, is the tension between observation, which is something we all do, and the ability to record it. To put it, with pen and ink, on paper, is something very few of us can do. I certainly can’t. The head really reads like a signature as well as something really like a statement: I am Albrecht Dürer, and I’m going to do great things.