This portrait of Dürer’s father, who is identifiable by the inscription, was given as a gift to King Charles I of England in 1636. When Charles was executed in 1649, it was sold. It eventually entered the National Gallery’s collection in the early twentieth century.
There are four versions of the picture, but the National Gallery’s is the only one that matches an inventory description of 1639, where the sitter is described as having a black cap, and ‘a dark yellow gown wherein his hands are hidden in the wide sleeves painted upon a reddish ground all crack’t.’
The picture is probably a later sixteenth-century copy of a lost original by Dürer. The colour of the background and the unusual technique used to apply it – in one thick layer of paint, rather than in multiple ones – are not typical for the artist. This method of paint application also created the cracks (now covered by restoration).
The inscription at the top of this picture tells us the sitter is Dürer’s father, Albrecht the Elder, depicted at the age of 70 in 1479. Albrecht the Elder was a goldsmith who trained his son in the craft. Originally from Hungary, he settled in the city of Nuremberg in 1455, where Albrecht the Younger was born in 1471.
Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, visited Nuremberg in 1636, and was presented with two pictures by Dürer as gifts for King Charles I of England: a self portrait (now in the Prado, Madrid) and this painting of his father. When Charles was executed in 1649 the paintings were sold. This portrait entered the National Gallery’s collection in the early twentieth century. There are actually four versions of the picture, but it is clear that ours was the work given to Charles: it is the only one that matches the description in the 1639 inventory, where the sitter is described as having a black cap, and ‘a dark yellow gown wherein his hands are hidden in the wide sleeves painted upon a reddish ground all crack’t’.
The cracks mentioned in the inventory developed when the single thick layer of paint was drying, but due to restoration they are no longer visible. The way that the paint was applied to cause the general streaky effect of the background, as well as the ‘drying cracks’, is not typical of Dürer; the colour of the background is also not found in any of his other pictures. He was much more likely to paint a dark background or a landscape. The unusual technique suggests that the picture is probably a copy dating to the later sixteenth century.
It might seem strange that Arundel was presented with a copy as a gift for the King, but it was common for copies to be made after works by artists as famous and highly regarded as Dürer, and many were produced in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After Dürer’s death the desire for copies of his works increased, spurring on their production. The Nuremberg authorities probably didn‘t know it was a copy or if they did, it didn’t matter to them.
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