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)
How others have already recognized Cézanne's late portraits as "portraits" of himself.
See how Caravaggio's iconic painting makes art's basic paradigm crystal clear
Don't let the belief that Caravaggio was a Realist lead you to think each of his faces has a different identity.
Caravaggio executes his painting with a sword just as he executed a man
"Mistakes" in representing reality are cues to the scene's underlying meaning
See how Caravaggio conveyed ideas about art in a simple image which Artemisia Gentilleschi then transformed into her own self-portrait
Learn how additions to a painting's narrative often provide access to the composition's underlying meaning
See how the "artist" as St. Sebastian watches Carlo Crivelli’s Crowning of the Virgin from the side of the altarpiece.
One of my first discoveries remains, for me, an object lesson in art. Perhaps for you too.
If a painting looks as though there are two realities, as here, the answer is often the same
A long-mysterious image succumbs to interpretation if seen through a different paradigm
See how a divine figure is posed like a sculptor and, as an artist, executes his work
Find out how Chagall made obvious what many other artists obscured
An easy-to-recognize demonstration of how artists fuse the studio and their subject into one image
See how the inversion of the artist-model relationship helps express the androgyny of the artist's mind
A sketch-like landscape print by the nineteenth-century French artist, Camille Corot, includes the ghost-like echo of his own self-portrait in the trees at right.
Find out how specialists have been on the right track too, even a contemporary.
Michael Fried has seen how Courbet painted himself in The Stonebreakers
Michael Fried read this painting exactly as we would 20 years ago
See how a self-portrait viewed through a different perspective changes everything
Find out how the colloquial term for a female rider inspired an artist
Yet one more artist who sees himself as an animal, even as a creating animal
What can one learn from the single fragment of a larger painting? A lot, if you look.
Cranach saw a resemblance in someone else's work and made it his own, a common practice in poetic art
See how Cranach represents himself as an evil man executing "his painting" of spiritual perfection.
In Cranach’s 1506 woodcut of Venus and Cupid, Cupid is the artist drawing back the bow to shoot his “victim”.
St. Veronica’s veil was the cloth with which she wiped Christ’s face after his death and on which the imprint of his face was left. The cloth with its miraculous image is here held by the angel as though it is being blown by the wind.
This woodcut by Dürer is known as Cain Killing Abel even though there is no way to know whether the scene is biblical or not. It might just as well be an ordinary scene of murder
Discover how two of Dürer's images are based on his own profile
Dürer’s woodcut of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian provides further evidence that even religious scenes are self-referential.
This is an example of a hidden face in rock being seen by others
See how artists continually think on another level beyond the narrative
On the surface this drawing by Albrecht Durer appears to be a simple portrait of Saint Dominic.
Learn how artists identified with other animals, even in the Renaissance.
Find out how inconsistencies in an artist's technique can be the sign of significant meaning
See how Durer shaped the Virgin and Child into the form of his own monogram
One of the easiest ways to find unseen features in paintings is to look for the artist's initials. Daumier included them more than most.
An early caricature reveals the same elements as previously shown in Daumier's mature work
How Daumier turned a kettle-drum into symbols...
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