State Honors

One common feature of poetic art that has remained almost totally unknown is the symbol of state honor. Though not as widely used among artists as some of the other themes on this site, it was still commonly used by the best of the best. Artists like Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck received gold chains from powerful rulers in recognition of their favor. The artists then proudly displayed these heavy chains in their self-portraits as well as in portraits of other figures. The chains on the latter now help identify these figures as an alter ego of the artist while also conveying  the artist’s primacy over contemporary painters. 

Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) sought state honor all his life and when he finally became a member of the Order of Santiago, the Order’s Cross was famously painted onto his self-portrait in Las Meninas. Edouard Manet (1832-83), the French artist who was an enthusiastic follower of Velazquez, was similarly keen to receive the French equivalent, the Légion d’Honneur, and when he too received it shortly before his death he remarked that he would have preferred it sooner. Nevertheless Manet’s oeuvre, almost from the beginning, is full of symbols referring to the Légion d’Honneur as a fictional mark of his primacy among French painters. Learn to identify the handful of symbols used to suggest these honors and it will help you unravel the work’s meaning.

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