Art’s Unknown Frown

Self-portrait details, L to R: Mantegna, Giorgione, Dürer, Lambert Lombard, Caravaggio, Rembrandt

Artists frown. Constantly. Why? Charles Darwin considered the corrugator, the muscle which results in a frown, as the most remarkable of the human face because it irresistably conveys the idea of mind.1 And that's why, in my opinion, artists have used it for centuries not only in their own self-portraits, an unrecognized tradition (above and below), but in other figures who represent their thinking mind. Shakespeare used it in similar ways. Elizabeth Sacks has argued that the many references to pursed brows in Othello indicate "thoughts shut up in the brain" to use the poet's words and that the characters themselves represent Shakespeare's mind at work, giving birth to new ideas2 Many readers will recognize the similarity here between Sack's interpretation and our own paradigm of art. In fact, it's precisely how I interpreted Velazquez's frowning Portrait of Gongorà (1622).

Self-portrait details, L to R: Poussin, Van Gogh, Munch, Boccioni, Beckmann, Balthus

Art historians have occasionally noticed within their own area of expertise something meaningful about frowns even if the actual meaning escapes them. A surprising number of Albrecht Dürer's portraits are characterized by a slight pursing of the brows, a fact Hutchison guessed might be "the artist's way of imbuing the sitter with the civic virtue of Fortitude."3 (Take that one with a grain of salt!) Another scholar has observed that Edouard Manet who copied two angels by the Renaissance artist, Andrea del Sarto, added a frown not present in the original.4 He offered no reason why though he remarked later with puzzlement that Manet's self-portrait in Concert in the Tuileries (1862) has a deep frown too. Perhaps most compelling, not only in subject matter but for its early date, is the figure of the "Author of Genesis" at Chartres Cathedral (below), sculpted around 1200 AD. Like characters in Othello and visual poets too, this figure clearly uses his mind like a womb giving birth not only to the Book of Genesis but the world as well. He is the creative artist as God. He also has his head on his hand, a gesture with similar meaning I will discuss separately.

Anon., "Author of Genesis" (c.1200) Chartres Cathedral

Frowns in art are, generally speaking, not just features of an individual but code, known by artists, for the depiction of their own minds at work. Keep it in your mind when you look at art. You'll find it useful.


For other relevant artworks, as of writing, explained on the site, see Leonardo's Landscape (1473), Dürer's St. Jerome in the Wilderness (1496) Mantegna's Ecce Homo (c.1500), Michelangelo's David (1501-4), Lucas van Leyden's Standard-Bearer (c.1510), Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes (1599), Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath (1610), Rembrandt's Self-portrait as a Beggar...(1630), Delacroix's Arabs of Oran (1837), Balthus' Portrait of André Derain (1936) and Picasso's YO's in Piero Crommelynck (1966-71). For more recent entries, use the search function with "frown".


1. Richard Gregory, Mirrors in Mind (London: Penguin) 1998, p. 5 

2. Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy (New York: ST. Martin's Press) 1980, p.70  

3. Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton University Press) 1990, p. 65

4. Paul Abe Isaacs, The Immobility of the Self in the Art of Edouard Manet: A Study with special emphasis on the relationship of his imagery to that of Gustave Flaubert and Stéphane Mallarmé, PhD Diss., Brown University, 1976, pp. 72-3

Reader Comments

I have a sketch or print that looks to be the study for the version of John the Baptist said to be a self portrait as a young man. I have yet to see any examples but the completed painting. I do not have a couple hundred bucks to get it appraised. It is labeled ‘Portrait of a young man’ & is signed. The frame is black w/inner gold & matte is fibrous & label on back looks like blue memiograph printing. Indicators on sealed brown paper backing include ART LORE (co.?), the serial numbers F63-542 on blue label & E 2341 in pencil on brown paper. Please see fit to contact me w/any clarity or info.
Thanks, mylo

Mylo Roze
16 Apr 2015

The above comment relating to Andrea del Sarto

Mylo Roze
16 Apr 2015

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