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.

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