We’ll start with a question. How can a self-portrait be considered a representation of the studio? Well, usually in paintings of the artist in the studio, artistic implements are shown; such tools also appear in self-portraits. From the sixteenth-century onwards, artists tended to show themselves sitting or standing before an easel with the tools of their trade around them. Expect to see brushes- obviously!- palettes, drawings, jars, sculpture, other canvases- what was called last week the paraphernalia of painting. Given the smaller dimensions of self-portraits, not all these instruments can be shown; instead we usually see a reduced ensemble of brushes, palette, maulstick, and of course the support that the painter is working on.
When thinking about the problem of self-portraits and the artist’s studio it might help to use a concept used by Giles Waterfield in his essay on the studio- “self-framing.” From the 18th century onwards, artists in Britain began to show themselves looking at themselves through mirrors in their own studios. As Waterfield says , such mirroring apparatuses gave the artist the opportunity to show reflections that reflect the artist’s reflections on himself, (The Artist’s Studio, 13). This sub-genre can be traced back to Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait of 1524, painted just after he arrived in Rome. In this virtuosic and somewhat arrogant demonstration of painting, Parmigianino shows himself reflected in a convex mirror. Richard Brilliant has called this image a “tour-de force of contradictory illusion, self-deception, and abortive alienation”, (Portraiture, 157). And he goes on to say that in this instance the spectator is made to feel that in looking at the mirror image he is intruding into the apparently reciprocal relation between the artist and the mirror; the large hand might act as barrier between the viewer and studio space. As we shall see, the artist’s studio can invite or bar, depending on the whim and temperament of the artist him or herself.
A more famous example of the mirror occurs in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in which the artist may be shown deep in the mirror witnessing the wedding of the Arnolfini couple in the room. This mirror may have been the inspiration for another self-framing image: Mark Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait of 1918. Here, the Bloomsbury Group artist shows himself painting in a mirror; the still-life he is representing stands below the mirror, and Gertler shows his studio reflected again in the bottle in the inanimate group. A curious feature here is the looming Japanese figure, which may not only betray Gertler’s interest in Oriental art but suggest his impending doom- he threw himself under a train several years later.
In the process of creating a self-portrait, an artist obviously makes use of the mirror; without it they cannot paint a self-image, unless they rely on memory, but that would lead to errors in representation. Of course we seldom see the mirror in the self-portrait because that is what the artist is looking into as they paint themselves. I say “seldom” because there are notable exceptions: we’ve seen the Gertler, but well before that there is the Triple Portrait by the Flemish artist Johannes Gumpp, executed in 1646. In this extraordinary image, Gumpp shows himself no less than three times: in person, in his studio painting with his back to the spectator; in the mirror, with his gaze averted; and on the canvas, looking directly out at us. Here the distinction between the physical mirror in the studio and the “mirror” of the painting is made; the artist has to continually look into the former in order to realize the latter, on canvas, which might be seen as a moral “mirror” that reflects the virtue and skill of the painter. The difference between the two is also seen in relation to doing and seeing. Gumpp regards himself in the mirror, a purely optical strategy and uses his hands to paint the image he sees, a mechanical activity. The skill needed in perfecting the Self-Portrait is negotiation between hand and eye, which inevitably leaves a gap, a blind spot which is neither the painting on the easel nor the mirror. We could, at a pinch, even imagine ourselves in the place of the artist who seems to be looking out directly at the spectator, unlike the reflection in the mirror which looks to the side, although the artist’s back suggests barring- like Parmigianino’s hand- rather than admission into the studio. We could try another experiment if we don’t feel confident at imagining ourselves in the space of the painter- imagine another artist creating the self-image.
Actually we don’t have to envisage this situation as we have a ready-made example. The 16th century painter Sofonisba Auguissola did a painting of another artist, her tutor, Bernardino Campi, painting her own image; so this is a self-image created via the mediation of another painter, who being her mentor, immediately raises questions about lineage, influence, and not forgetting gender as well. It is a striking image, and Sophisba may be perpetrating an elaborate joke, which is lost upon us. As Germaine Greer has observed, the head of Campi is “subtly expressive, in her own best manner”, while Sophonisba’s features are blank and “moon-faced”, (The Obstacle Race, 181). Sofonisba shows herself as vague, un-idealised, sketchily conceived, and her master in fine detail, though it also her hand that has rendered this face. This is very amusing, although we’re not privy to the actual meaning of the joke. Or does Anguissola have a more serious intention? Is the female artist, probably under cultural pressure, playing down her ability as an artist in a self-deprecating way? Compare Sophonisba’s visual scherzo with this less schematic, less humorous self-image.
A second example of the mirror in self-portrait is provided by the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci who played with the vocabulary of the self-portrait by showing himself as a self-portrait in his own studio in a painting of 1604. Perched on an easel, Annibale’s framed self-image regards the spectator with his trade mark melancholia, while his palette hangs forlornly from his easel. A shadowy figure lurks by the window and a little dog stands nearby. The animal quotient was cut down in the final version; the sketch for it has a cat under the easel and a pack of dogs Annibale’s drawing is a highly complex meditation on the relationship between the self-portrait and the studio, underscored by the relationship between reality and illusion. In the top rectangle, a quick sketch for a conventional self-portrait is drawn, and in that an image is an oval mirror; this could be the artist’s own as he would have faced the mirror with his right shoulder towards it resulting in a reversed image as he worked. In the bottom rectangle, the self-portrait is placed within Annibale’s studio. This has a beamed ceiling, three dogs, one of which is barking at his master’s canvas- this is a witty way of suggesting the dog thinks it’s the real person, an update of Zeuxis fooling the animals in classical Greece. A cat cuddled up under the easel lends a note of domesticity and informality- no studio should be without one! The mysterious figure framed at the window may be the artist himself, peering into his studio, and in the process emphasising the dynamic between the real world and the realm of the studio, reality and artifice respectively. Finally, the bearded man to the right might relate to the clothes in the original self-portrait, which have been changed in the final version to convey less grandeur and more humility, not to say sadness, Annibale’s customary expression, according to his biographers. Many more ideas are contained in this fascinating drawing, which beats Gumpp into a cocked hat with its complexity.
Sophonisba’s unusual mediated self-portrait; Gumpp’s tripartite representation of himself; and Annibale’s complex configuration indicates what could be called the expanding repertoire of the self-portrait from the late 16th century into the 17th century. Conventions of self-representation were being challenged resulting in singular iconography that we’re seeing in these examples. But perhaps the most radical departure from the conventions of self-portraiture is Poussin’s contemporary, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was in contact with one of his patrons. In her Self-Portrait, aka Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting, Artemisia shows herself painting at her canvas, seen from the side. This in itself is evidence of her science and skill since it would have required two mirrors to capture this oblique figure. More significantly, she shows herself as Pittura, the female personification of painting. Conforming to Ripa’s prescription for Pittura- with the odd change such as omitting the blindfold symbolising the muteness of painting, though she retains the mask of imitatio, worn on a necklace- Artemisia is clothed in the cangiante gown showing a characteristic of the art. In showing herself as Pittura, Artemisia avoids the masculine tradition in which Pittura is shown as a female muse to the male painter who is inspired by her to paint.
One of the most famous examples of this is the beautiful woman in a canvas in Poussin’s Self-Portrait of 1649-50. She too wears colourful cangiante garments, but Poussin has made some modifications. She is held by an invisible figure- the painter himself, perhaps?- and has an eye in her diadem. This has been interpreted as optical perspective, or what Poussin called “prospect”, a clear way of seeing necessary to the painter’s art. Though Artemisia’s self-portrait lacks such intellectual qualities as Poussin’s, it is a remarkable pictorial essay on the role of the female painter fighting to carve out a career and artistic reputation in a predominantly masculine world. Gentileschi scholars suggest, rightly I think, that it was probably painted in 1638 when Artemisia was working with her father at the court of Charles I in England. As some have speculated, Artemisia may have seen Van Dyck’s renowned Self-Portrait with Sunflower- the latter a symbol for the king- and resolved to have created an equally memorable self-image. There is no doubt that she did that, and revolutionised the genre of the self-portrait in the process.