Every Painter Paints Himself
Every painter paints himself, a saying first documented in the early Renaissance, has been mentioned by artists ever since. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci used it, as Picasso did too; Lucian Freud and other contemporary artists still cite variations today. Yet despite its great significance to artists, art scholars rarely discuss the saying or its meaning. Those who do seem to have no choice but to deny it: painters don’t really paint themselves, they say, but their sensibility. But why would a phrase that meant so much to great masters, and still does to their followers, require re-phrasing to mean anything? The truth is, as this website demonstrates, it is the images of these visual artists that are veiled, not their words.
Despite everything you have ever heard about art Every painter paints himself is the underlying principle of great art since at least the Renaissance and probably before. To artists and thinkers in the Renaissance, the human body was a microcosm of the universe and it was widely believed that the secrets of God’s creation could be found inside us. That is why both Michelangelo and Leonardo dissected corpses, breaking the law in the process. They were searching inside for the secrets of Creation and the cosmos.
Now forget almost everything you have ever been told about the visual arts. Great art is not, and has never been, a depiction of the exterior world. True artists never intended that, even if their patrons expected it. It would have been mere copying of nature. Regardless of initial appearances, all poetic art is an allegory of the artist’s own mind in the process of creation, and thus an allegory in miniature of God’s own creation. That is why ‘know yourself’ in a broader context is the motto of all mystics. Not everyone can see this, though, because as in difficult poetry, the true meaning of great art is hidden. The French painter Eugene Delacroix wrote “the eyes of many people are dull or false; they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing.” Other masters have made similar remarks. If you change your perception, though, and stop imagining falsely that art is an early form of photography, the scene itself will change from a depiction of the exterior world to that of the artist’s own mind. The process is similar to how a Shakespearean play is mere entertainment for groundlings on one level while also providing, on a higher plane, an allegorical illustration of the poet’s own mind in the process of creation. Literary critics George Steiner and Elizabeth Sacks have each separately shown how. The same has been written of Dante’s Commedia.
The problem in art, going back to antiquity, is everyday vision. While we all know that words can be read on multiple levels, we do not grasp easily how sight can be too. We think that what we see is “fact” though our minds use just a tiny selection of the visual data they receive to create a scene of our own making. As humans we have much in common and thus see much alike but the differences can also be major as jurors soon discover. We each paint our own visual “reality” as a reflection of what we already know. Thus artists, learning this from each other’s art, do likewise and paint an allegorical view of their own mind with each figure as a specific alter ego. It is a traditional concept commonly accepted in literature that only the illusion of visual reality prevents us from seeing in art.
Once you know that every painter paints himself, every masterpiece of Western art has the potential to change before your eyes. Discover here some of the techniques that artists have long used to convey this and your perception of art will improve as dramatically as your enjoyment of it will also increase.
All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)
See how one form can metamorphose into another while bringing with it the form's original meaning
If you can't make a sense of an image beyond what it appears to be, keep looking until you can. Come back to it, time and again, until you do.
See how Degas subtly changed his copies after the Old Masters to fit his own (and art's) agenda
Veiled images are hidden in even the most simple and natural-looking sketches
Is Degas' Little Dancer just a dancer, a study in realism? Or is she......?
There is more to Degas' art than the mere copying of nature
Learn how to make sense of Degas' most mystifying composition
See what Degas makes of a Delacroix and thus, perhaps, what you should too....
See how the meaning behind this image changes our entire understanding of Degas' oeuvre
Find out how to enter an artist's imagination with a bit of your own
Learn how to recognize the pointing pose of an artist and to confirm it through a play on words
When Delacroix was at last given large public rooms to decorate, he turned to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel
Another example of St. Irene "painting" St. Sebastian
Learn how an artist's sketches and unfinished drawings help explicate a painting
Discover the secret under Goliath's helmet then know what to look for
Here, in a novel turn, the American artist turns a paintbrush into the oars of a scull
Find out how Eakins' portrait of his father becomes one of himself
Sometimes the features which have not been seen are the most obvious
Watch El Greco's thought process over a series of paintings
For artists St Veronica is a very significant saint. She "painted" Christ.
See how a contemporary artist still uses the language of the great masters
See a concise statement in mid sixteenth-century England of how every painter paints himself
Find out how a little knowledge of studio life goes a long way
Fouquet's king, Bernini's Richelieu and Rigaud's Louis XIV have more in common with your innermost self than you probably realize
Saint Helena in Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrayal of four saints seems separate and apart from her peers. Here's why.
See how Hals used his monogram to signal an alter ego
Keep an eye out for the poses of painting because......
See how one of England's most famous paintings is not what everyone thinks
See animal. Think artist. Especially with a knowing look and a furry paw.
Gauguin veiled his face so well in this woodcut that it has never been seen
Learn how an artist can link himself through music to great painters before him
What you can see in a self-portrait when you think creatively. Indeed it's your job to become the painter...
Find out how Gauguin's Vision after the Sermon is the Artist's
Self-representation was as common in the early 15th century as the 20th and today
Narrative paintings are meant to make sense. Take note of anything odd.
Even at 17, Giacometti understood the hidden meaning of art
See how a classical legend becomes the perfect setting for an allegory on the artist's studio
If you keep our website's name in mind when you look at pictures, the scene can change
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