Dürer drew this portrait of his emaciated mother just two months before her death. By this stage it was clear that she was approaching the end of her life, and the artist created the portrait as a way of finding solace and to have something by which to remember her. By Albrecht Dürer’s own account, recorded in his Book of Remembrance, his mother Barbara had been living in his household since 1504. Following a prolonged period of deteriorating health, culminating in 1513 with an acute bout of serious illness, Barbara Dürer was left effectively bed-bound (or at least unable to leave her room). She eventually died on 16 May 1514.
Barbara Dürer is portrayed from very close quarters, and from a subtly elevated position. Consequently, some parts of her face stand out particularly prominently – for example, her forehead, furrowed with thin, leathery lines, the exquisitely defined vein by her temple, her pronounced nose, grown long with old age, the visible hollow around her left eye, and the sharply protruding cheekbone. However, perhaps most prominent is the area around the subject’s throat and collarbone. With Barbara’s headscarf pulled back over her left shoulder, these areas are exposed to particular scrutiny. By contrast, Dürer employs a much more hurried style in his depiction of his mother’s clothing. He portrays his mother wearing a thin shirt that has come slightly loose above her belly, or perhaps a type of jacket known as a ‘goller’ over a shirt, wrapped in a cloak pleated slightly at the hem. Although the centre of the portrait is characterized by the close attention Dürer has paid in capturing the materiality of the various fabrics used in the clothing, the detail and anatomical accuracy reduce considerably as the gaze moves away from the observational focus of the picture and towards its edges. Neither shoulder’s position is defined with particular clarity. The haste and dynamism evident in the drawing here suggest a more casual approach to the peripheral areas, which in turn underlines the overall sense that the picture’s focus is upon the face, neck, and breast – creating something akin to a bust portrait. It quickly becomes clear that this approach yields a form of verism that has resulted in Dürer’s drawing being described in terms of ‘shocking realism’, attesting to the artist-son’s ‘heedless love of truth’. Even when considered from a more neutral perspective (albeit one motivated by sympathy and without any negative undertones), it remains undeniable that the picture emerging from the drawing represents a stark contrast to the majority of other depictions of elderly women created in this period.