While the Renaissance phrase Every painter paints himself uses the masculine to denote both genders, as the English of my youth did too, the artists themselves were under no delusion that their male minds would be sufficient to become like God (see The Divine Artist). They needed a feminine side too (or a masculine one in the case of female artists) because a mind reflecting the cosmos – whether God’s or a visual poet’s – contains both genders as any reasonable thinker since Plato would have known. This is important to grasp because the patriarchal norms of everyday life in the Renaissance, of particular interest to feminist art historians, were markedly different from the intellectual concepts so important to mystical thought.
Although some historians believe that Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine mystic and translator of Plato's writings, rediscovered the subject of androgyny in the late fifteenth century,1 it had always been present in one form or another, including among the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages. Caroline Walker Bynum has shown, for example, how large numbers of devout people described and thought of Jesus as Mother. Indeed, even more surprisingly, “authors [in the medieval period] found it far easier than we seem to find it to apply characteristics stereotyped as male or female to the opposite sex.”2
Although artists from the Enlightenment onwards may not have been as religious as their earlier colleagues, many remained spiritually-inclined, even mystically-inclined, and continued to present their psychic life as androgynous. In the nineteenth century artists like Edouard Manet, a man not easily linked to mysticism or esotericism, demonstrated with startling clarity that their minds (or at least the mind they imagined) was androgynous, a position which by the twentieth century was receiving outside support from discoveries in analytical psychology.
1. Janusz. Walek, “The Czartoryski Portrait of a Youth by Raphael”, Artibus et Historiae 12, 1991, p. 219
2. Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1982, p. 162
All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)
How an artist, the artist's lover, is Ingres' own androgynous reflection
See how artists play with our historical memory and immortalize their own
Even 20th-century art, seemingly remote from the Renaissance, maintains the same traditions
Michael Lobel explains how several of Sloan's paintings of New York street scenes are really allegories on painting
True artists make their art contemporary while remaining solidly traditional
Everyone agrees that Frida Kahlo painted herself.....but within which tradition? Psychological and surrealist or esoteric?
The universal features of Frida Kahlo's art are what links her to the canon, not the details of her private life
History and the politics of the moment never trumps self-knowledge and self-reference as the 'sine qua non' of art
The most crucial piece of information about the Mona Lisa missing from standard textbooks is that the proportions of the Mona Lisa’s face differ from an earlier version seen in X-rays but are similar to the artist’s own in a well-known self-portrait.
How historical accuracy was not Leonardo's purpose in a portrait
How painters can imagine themselves as violinists and other musical performers
A 20th-century version of medieval angels playing stringed instruments. See how.
A famous but much maligned painting has more poetry in it than its critics think
Once again, see how the hilt of a sword signs the artist's name
See how even a contemporary artist follows the hidden tradition of the great masters
This early painting by Manet has always troubled interpreters because it seems to make no apparent sense. Its explanation here, though, will help you understand paintings by Manet, Velazquez and other artists too.
See how Manet identifies with a female artist of his own acquaintance, probably without her even knowing
Everyone knows that Boating is a masterpiece. Why is it so difficult to explain?
Find out how Manet's observations of scenes in Parisian cafés are really something else entirely
Skating on ice is like drawing lines on the mirrored surface of the artist's mind
How an unfinished painting is finished and how a horse becomes an easel
See how smoke and mirrors turn the outside of Manet's studio into the inside
There is more to the Tragic Actor than meets the eye. Find out what's there that others cannot see.
Discover how Manet's backgrounds are often "paintings"
An early example of how Manet turns a modern woman, and his future wife, into an artist
Unless there are dogs or cats in the picture, we tend to look at the humans more than the animals. Don't. Artists are often animals.
Why did Picasso choose this painting for himself? What did he see in it?
See how Matisse himself appears in even a simple drawing of an unidentified model
To see what's in a painting can take a very long time... 15 years, in this case.
Arrows in art are often "brushes", especially with inconsistencies on the literal level
Find out what the studio and Golgotha have in common
There's probably more unseen in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel than has ever been known....
Michelangelo's first great masterpiece is widely misunderstood. Like art in general, it is an expression of the creative moment.
Discover how you can unlock layers of meaning from a relatively simple composition
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