Carracci’s Portrait of a Musician (1587)

Music is such an age-old visual metaphor for the art of painting that you should immediately scan any portrait of a musician for a self-reference. In this case the man is writing music with the same instrument, a quill, that a visual artist draws. He is composing as a painter composes. His hand is raised, moreover, caught in suspension between the paper he is apparently writing on, below, and the (unseen) painting itself on an easel in front of him. He turns to look at himself in the mirror.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Annibale Carracci, Portrait of a Musician (1587) Oil on canvas. 91 x 67cm. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

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The space between his fingers and thumb is eye-shaped (left) to suggest the unity of eye and hand, of perception and craft. The "paint" from the black inkpot below it is from a contrasting eye-shape, dark not light. It is another way of describing how an artist's perception moves from insight (the "eye" of the dark inkpot) to out-sight  (the "eye" of the active hand) as it constructs an apparent scene of nature out of thought. The quill - or bird's feather  - sweeps across the upper "eye" as though in a flight of imagination transmitting truth - like the dove of the Holy Spirit - from one reality to another. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of A. Carracci's Portrait of a Musician

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Not surprisingly, our composer, long unidentified, somewhat resembles the artist, especially in the concave slope of his distinctive nose and beard type (upper images), even if the composer's is more extravagant. 

Comparison to a slightly earlier self-portrait (below) reveals that their heads are posed identically with identical eyes, only of different color.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Upper and Lower L: Detail of A. Carracci's Portrait of a Musician (1587)
Upper R: Detail of A. Carracci's Self-portrait (1590-1600) Uffizzi, Florence
Lower R: Detail of A. Carracci's Self-portrait with Three Other Figures, inverted (c.1585) Milan

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The man is not performing his music but composing it and thus constructs his artwork as an image in his mind, conceiving it the way a painter does. That white flash of the bird's feather across the form of his "inner eye" is the core of the painting's content. His hand, having dipped the quill in the black ink, faces the blank blackness of the background as it awaits his image.

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Captions for image(s) above:

A. Carracci, Portrait of a Musician

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Lastly, folds in the black fabric of his left sleeve at the elbow (far right in upper image) imitates the shape of his deep-set eye (lower image) with other folds below it for the eye-socket.1 As in the union of his eye and active hand mentioned above, here his inactive hand is connected to the black "eye" of his insight.  

There is more, it seems, to a great portrait than a pretty face.


 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of A. Carracci's Portrait of a Musician
Bottom: Detail of A. Carracci's Self-portrait (1590-1600)

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Notes:

1. There are even strokes of highlights to the right of the sleeve's elbow mimicking eyelashes.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Mar 2013. © 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.