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Johan Gregor van der Schardt

Self Portrait (1573)

Johan Gregor van der Schardt, c. 1573, "Self-portrait" terracotta (clay material)

h 23.0cm × w 28cm × d 14cm

Last week I scrolled through my photo library on my phone, looking for photos that I took of works at museums I have visited in recent years. I take pictures of works that speak to me; ones that I wish would stay with me somehow, if only by looking back at their image - to re-experience the momentary feeling of facing the work in person again.

In a corner of the gigantic Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, stands a small statue. The portrait is powerful in the way it catches my eye, and a strong aura hangs around it. Since my visit to the Rijksmuseum, I often think back to that statue, which I later discovered was made about 450 years ago. The work was in fact of great historical value within the genre of portrait art. This work seems to me a perfect first Case study for my research.

Frits Scholten, the Senior Curator of the museum, has researched and written extensively about this statue. Below you can read a short selection of texts - with a focus on embodiment and artistry - that I made from his body of research about this specific portrait.

Johan Gregor van der Schardt (1530 - c. 1581), a sculptor from the Low Countries who achieved great fame on both sides of the Alps, sculpted his self-portrait around 1573. At that time he was the court sculptor of Emperor Maximilian II in Nuremberg, and at the top of his fame and mastery. (...) He modelled his self-portrait in white clay and, after baking it in the oven, painted it in natural colours. Apart from its size - Van der Schardt depicted himself at about half of his real size - it is lifelike. The portrait is not flattering at all: even his balding crown, greying temple and the pimple on his cheek are not obscured.

Van der Schardt was thus one of the first sculptors to create an autonomous, sculpted self-portrait in art history. He made an impressive and timeless masterpiece, which has been characterised as one of the most important sculpted self-portraits of the Renaissance. In many respects, the statue exudes a completely new spirit, which had not been seen before in sculpture outside Italy and which, after more than four hundred years, is still deemed as modern. Self-portraits of sculptors, unlike those of painters, are relatively rare, because it is difficult to depict yourself in three dimensions - from all sides.

Pics by Karel Tuytschaever


Van der Schardt portrayed himself in an extraordinarily confident and ambitious pose; the image shows him without clothing or accessories, and his face points sideways. In his execution, he takes two contrasting sources as reference. On the one hand, Van der Schardt opts for an old-fashioned type of portrait, still Gothic in its essence, with inspiration from medieval religious sculpture and reliquaries. On the other hand, he refers to classical antiquity - through showing his body nude.

More than a portrait that is painted or drawn, a sculpted self-portrait raises the question of technical ingenuity - since the maker must represent himself in three dimensions. There are two approaches to this; to make a cast of your own face, or to model it with the help of mirrors. The first method was considered the most obvious, and also the easiest. The technique of making an impression in plaster or clay was well known in the 16th century and was often used in making death masks. In 1528 in Nuremberg, a day after the funeral of painter Albert Dürer, some artists even dug up the painters’ body to make plaster casts of his face and his masterful hands. People were also familiar with making impressions of the faces of living people - something which must certainly have been the case in Nuremberg, given the local tradition of making ​Naturabgüsse​. (Editor's note: This is the original term for making natural casts. It becomes strikingly evident that art is emulating nature when the artist does not use a self-sculpted model for metal casts, but rather uses real animals and plants. The Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer was famous for this procedure.)​ ​Van der Schardt, because of his close collaboration with Jamnitzer, undoubtedly had access to the knowledge needed to make a human cast. Nevertheless, he did not opt ​​for this method, from a well-considered artistic point of view: to exhibit his skills, his self-portrait would not become a mere ​Naturabgüsse,​ but rather the result of single-handed modelling.

The fact that the bust of Van der Schardt is not modelled from a cast is apparent in its dimensions. The use of a mirror, which is necessary for modelling oneself, automatically results in a self-portrait being about half its actual size. The mirror image of an object, measured on the flat plane of mirror glass, always results in an image measuring half its actual size, which is indeed the case with Van der Schardt's self-portrait.


The sculptor's choice to model his head also meant that he wanted to compete with the self-portraits of painters: after all, they also had to rely on mirrors. He thus seems to have taken a stand in the paragon, the Italian debate over which art was superior - painting or sculpture. (...) Van der Schardt proved that with the help of mirrors - usually an instrument of painters - he was able to represent himself from all sides. Also, he moved even more explicitly into the field of painters through his use of color, something he also applied in other works, but which became even more daring in his self-portrait, because it was almost entirely executed in incarnate (natural skin color). The use of such 'living' tones was initially seen by painters as a powerful argument in their favor within the paragon debate.

How and when Van der Schardt arrived at his naturalistic, colorful portrait style is not clear. In Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, there was a tradition of polychrome portrait sculpture, using terracotta as the medium, with which Van der Schardt must have been familiar. Yet it seems that he did not develop this pursuit of naturalism until he settled in Nuremberg, where the Flemish painter Nicolas Neufchatel showed a similar preference for sober, understated portrait paintings - using a limited palette and plain backgrounds. (...) In terms of shape and lifelikeness, Van der Schardt's sculptures also have much in common with locally produced medallion portraits and models for portrait medals in colored wax. Nuremberg travelled into the center of this art branch in the last quarter of the 16th century. Such Nuremberg portraits may have inspired Van der Schardt in the naturalistic use of color in his busts.


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