The Artist is Always Present

Fig. 1 Giampetrino, Diana the Huntress (c.1530) Oil on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Very few novels use the first person pronoun, most using an impersonal narrator to describe the scene. The author David Henry Thoreau noted that, with the ‘I’ omitted, the reader forgets that it really remains there because the novelist is confined to his theme by the narrowness of his own experience.1 This applies to visual art too because, self-portrait or not, the painter is always present.

Giampetrino, a 16th-century artist best known for following Leonardo, painted a panel of Diana the Huntress (now in the Metropolitan Museum) in which her pose is unmistakeably the artist’s (fig. 1). However obvious, though, few can see it. Curators at the Met only note that the goddess' arm “draws her arrow”, not that as an artist she paints the panel, her eyes fixed on her work like the real creator. An arrow, of course, often symbolizes a paintbrush which is why Diana holds hers as though it was one with the brush-like feathers aimed towards the surface.

Fig. 2 Rosso Fiorentino, Diana (1526) Engraved by Gian Giacomo Caraglio.

The goddess’ figure in Giampetrino’s panel was taken from a 1526 engraving by Rosso Fiorentino (fig. 2). There Diana also attends to her detailed work, drawing or engraving the edge of the archway that frames her own figure. An artist’s brush at the edge of the image, as at the edge of the arch here, commonly indicates the artist’s alter ego as I have explained before [See "Pointing at the Edge"]. The doubling works on other levels too. Diana as the artist’s model stands inside her niche yet as the artist her arms break out of the frame that she as a model is confined to. The message, of course, is that in the poet's mind, as in true reality, artist and model, like male and female, are one and the same, opposites united.

One advantage for us in knowing that the artist is always present is that we’ve always got something to look for in art even in relatively minor works like this one. We don’t just have to take in a scene; we’ve got work to do.

1. Thoreau, Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau on Education, ed. Martin Bickman (Boston: Houghton Miflin) 1999, pp. 31-2

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