The Artist with His Art

Almost all these hidden themes (few ever seen before) hark back to the idea that every painter paints himself. One of the most common is the depiction of the artist holding his or her art. Sometimes, especially in the Renaissance, the artist might represent himself as an executioner holding up the head of his victim (his “painting”) for us to see. This explains why the head of the victim is often a self-portrait. There is also an obvious pun in Italian on the word for masterpiece, capolavoro, which literally means head-work.1 In other examples the artist might be in the foreground facing his “painting” which is the background painted in a different style. The two levels symbolize two different realities, the artist’s studio and the painting. In other cases, especially in the nineteenth century, the background may defy perspective, seemingly flat or vertical and thus indicating its existence in the studio as a flat, upright canvas.

1. Capolavoro was first used in Italian literature around 1700 though is likely to have been used in speech before then. A head separated from a body, though, could have been used to symbolize the artist's artwork long before then because the concept that all art is a depiction of the artist's mind was already widespread in the early Renaissance. Mind, of course, is an abstract idea long associated with the brain inside the head. See Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, ed. Salvatore Battaglia, v.II (Turin: Unione Tipografico) 1961, p.708

1. Capolavoro was first used in Italian literature around 1700 though is likely to have been used in speech before then. A head separated from a body, though, could have been used to symbolize the artist's artwork long before then because the concept that all art is a depiction of the artist's mind was already widespread in the early Renaissance. Mind, of course, is an abstract idea long associated with the brain inside the head. See Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, ed. Salvatore Battaglia, v.II (Turin: Unione Tipografico) 1961, p.708

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