The Poses of Painting

One of the many ways artists depict the creative process metaphorically is to pose figures in an unrelated setting as though they were figures in a studio. For instance, they might pose a man inside a bar holding a pipe or cigarette as if he were sitting in front of an easel holding a brush. Only those “in the know” would then recognize how the symbolism of the pose adds meaning to the conventional symbolism of smoking (which often links deep thought and imagination to the changing forms of smoke.) The artist’s own meaning is thereby conveyed in the resulting image, regardless of the patron’s wishes.

Artists at work often have their arms extended as well, either painting a canvas or striking marble with a hammer. This then allows figures with outstretched arms, with or without tools, to serve as visual metaphors for the artist. Titian made much use of this in the Renaissance and Michael Fried, a well-known expert on later art, has recognized that several figures in paintings by Caravaggio are posed like an artist. However, unaware of the tradition, Fried fails to see the full significance of his insight.1 There are, of course, many other ways to use the poses of the studio in painting and sculpture, as we demonstrate in the entries below.

1. Fried, “Thoughts on Caravaggio”, Critical Inquiry 24, Autumn 1997, pp. 13-56; Fried sees such poses in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, Bacchus and Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.

1. Fried, “Thoughts on Caravaggio”, Critical Inquiry 24, Autumn 1997, pp. 13-56; Fried sees such poses in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, Bacchus and Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.