Self-Portrait of the Artist

An untidy history of artists' representations of themselves in pretty much any form you can think of (painting & sculpture, poetry & prose, photo & film…) — updated every third day and open for suggestions.

Tag: XVII century

The artist has a preference.

Poussin 1649

When his Parisian patron Jean Pointel asked for his portrait, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), by then residing in Rome and renowned throughout Europe, thought it best to do the job himself. The outcome shows just why.

The artist set out producing two self-portraits, wilily assuring his commissioner that he would give him the one that turned out best.

Jean Pesne - Self-portrait of Poussin

In 1649 he painted the top one, posing in front of a tomb in the style of a memento mori, while in 1650 he made the other (bottom), with the artist posing in front of a painting of a woman about to embrace another person, probably a sign of the artist’s friendship to his patron.

He sent them both to Paris in the same batch, but the two paintings met a different fate. The 1650 one, now in the Louvre, propagated Poussin’s reputation as an artist of intensity and decorum — his dark eyes caught in the lines of the two frames behind him — and was taken as an artistic model by successive generations of painters.

Poussin 1650

The 1649 portrait was less lucky. It suffered a downsizing (witness Jean Pesne’s specular etching, centre) and sat in Berlin, in virtual obscurity, for over three centuries, undeservedly atoning for the fact that the artist was more partial to its younger brother.

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The artist time-travels.

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We can all agree that this Vanitas with portrait of a young painter (ca 1651) represents the artist holding a portrait of himself. Yet what David Bailly (1584-1657) exactly meant as he set about portraying his younger self in the act of subverting the laws of space and time by the mere act of holding a portrait of himself at the age of 67, i.e. the age of the actual real-life David Bailly at the time he produced the painting (the real one and the fictional one in it) — well, that I leave to you.

(You can also see a portrait of what appears to be the artist’s wife, and, as an ‘easter egg’, her ghost behind the tall glass — And the ‘ghost’ reappears, with new implications, in Helen Lundberg’s Double portrait of the artist in time)

The artist has an unheimlich descendant.

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Three hundred and sixty-six years before Hugo Williams’ ‘Last poem‘, Pieter Claesz‘s Vanitas with violin and glass ball (ca 1628) combines a classic Dutch seventeenth-century vanitas with a self-portrait.

(The violin’s music that cannot be heard is particularly relevant to Williams’ tongue that will not speak.)

The artist at work can be seen in the glass ball, which flaunts Van Eyck and Parmigianino‘s convex mirrors amongst its notable predecessors, and claims a Still-life with a spherical mirror (1934) by M. C. Escher, the drawing Dutchman, as its unheimlich descendant.

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The artist tricks you.

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The artist’s position in Artemisia Gentileschi‘s Self-portrait as an allegory of painting (1638-39) is highly uncommon for a right-handed person. If you try to reenact it in a mirror you will see what I mean.

(Try two mirrors, then.)

The artist ages.

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The most prominent painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt van Rijn was also a prolific self-portrayer, with over 90 representations of himself in paintings, etchings, or sketches, documenting his entire life from youth and fame to old age.

Here are the first and last of his oil self-portraits. They date respectively 1628 and 1669, the year of his death.

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