Pointing at the Edge

Cornelis De Vos, Self-Portrait of the Artist with His Wife Suzanne Cock and Their Family (c.1630) 
Oil on canvas. Hermitage, St. Petersburg

If you cruise the various interpretations on this site, you might have noticed a tendency to explain a figure with an arm or hand pointing to or touching the edge of the image as the artist himself painting a self-portrait. Michael Fried first noticed this phenomenon in an early painting by Caravaggio. He persuasively argued that artists when they paint a self-portrait often position their canvas perpendicular to a mirror. That way they can look over their shoulder to see their own reflection in a mirror while painting the picture in front of them. The end-result is a figure whose hand or tool seems to touch the edge of the frame while facing out of the picture.1

This pose can be seen in the painting above by Cornelis de Vos. It depicts the artist and his family. De Vos is the man on the right-hand side, his pointing finger about to touch the vertical edge. A meaningless or mystifying gesture on the surface, it demonstrates how a pointing finger in poetic art so often means a painting finger or brush. It further suggests that the surface we are looking at is a mirror.

Detail of Cornelis De Vos' Self-Portrait of the Artist with His Wife Suzanne Cock and Their Family

De Vos painted his young son in front of his self-portrait holding a bow and arrow. The boy's arm stretches with the bow towards the edge, mimicking his father's action above and behind him. It emphasizes, as in a visual dictionary, that archery is a poetic metaphor for the act of painting though whether his contemporary audience understood this is most unlikely. Artists would have. The boy's arrow, incidentally, is not facing the same direction as the bow. It points back at him as if to say that the boy, a young, purified alter ego of his father, is in the act of painting himself. The arrow appears to come from our side of the painting as though it is the artist's actual paintbrush.

We are, of course, looking at a mental construction of an image. There is no way that the whole family could have been reflected in a mirror, the mirror into which the artist is looking. By pointing to the edge, De Vos only suggests that the surface of the painting is a metaphorical mirror and thus the surface of his own mind. 

For more examples of "artists" pointing to the edge, see Over the Shoulder Poses as well as Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome (c.1488-90), Manet's Faure as Hamlet (1877), Picasso's An Artist (1968) and the work of a living artist, Alan Feltus.

 

1. Fried, The Moment of Carvaggio, A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Princeton University Press) 2010, pp. 1-16.

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