Caravaggio’s Faces

The belief that artists prior to modernism represented the exterior world by copying it has led scholars into a thicket of conflicting claims about identification.

In a painting of musicians by the young Caravaggio experts have identified the face in the background as a self-portrait. But, why just him? All the faces in the painting look alike, at least what we can see of them. The only reason for marking the background figure as different is that he turns his head towards the viewer as self-portraits often do when part of a larger narrative.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Caravaggio, Musicians (c.1595) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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However, since all images by true artists should be considered a reflection of the artist’s mind, the same face can appear again and again in the same image, each an aspect of the artist’s own psyche. Even when the faces are significantly different each figure remains in some way or another a representation of the artist.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Two faces from Caravaggio's Musicians (1596): the so-called "self-portrait" (left) and his "friend" (right).

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To demonstrate the confusion around this issue, the same face appears again in a separate contemporaneous painting by Caravaggio, The Lute-Player, yet no-one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested that it is a self-portrait.

However if you think through the paradigm of “every painter paints himself” it would not be not surprising to find similar faces in the same painting.  Indeed you expect it. They are all representations of "the artist."

Captions for image(s) above:

Lute-Player (detail), c1596 The Hermitage, Saint Peterburg.

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Notes:

1. (1) Hibbard, Caravaggio (New York: Harper & Row) 1983, p. 35

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 08 Jun 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.