When the artist becomes the subject matter

What is it that makes every artist’s body of work unique? The two most commonly given answers that I’ve heard is; either break all the rules or re-invent the classics. Still, as one art professor once told me, “If you can’t put yourself into your work, it’ll have no life’. So here are some trailblazers who, quite literally, placed themselves into their paintings as they helped redefine the constructs of Fine Art during their time.1 2

The School of Athens by Raphael 1509-11

Raphael was an incredible young Renaissance era artist. Some might say that he had a lot to live up to, with masters like Leonardo and Michaelangelo around. Personally, I think he had a lot to guide him instead. One of his most famous works, The School of Athens, exhibits his perception of himself in the world of art. While he may not be commiserating with Da Vinci personally; he is in harmony with the group of thinkers within the school. His figure stands out because he chooses to stair at the viewer, an act indicating his narrative power in this scene. If he sees the viewer, he knows that he is the subject as well. He knows that what they (his artistic peers and himself) are doing is something worth remembering. It is an interesting commentary on the artists control of the viewer as well.3

Las Meninas, 1656 by Diego Velazquez

Velazquez’s work is another interesting example of when the artist enters the subject matter he is painting. Las Meninas, a famous Baroque era painting, depicts a household of Spain’s nobility. Las Meninas, or the Maids of Honor, discusses how important servants are to a nobleman’s image. Instead of being a portrait of a nobleman’s daughter being waited upon, it becomes an expanded image of all the people involved in making her life what it is. Her maids of honor, the nursemaid, a male servant, a nobleman on the stairs, her parents (reflected in the mirror on the back wall), and finally the artist who preserves the image of her family for future generations to come. The most interesting part of it all is, because Velazquez is facing away from them all, it seems the portrait was supposed to be of the mother and father to begin with. Even in a time where art was mainly portraiture, he was able to use his wit and skill to give his clients a mirror image of what makes them important- the people in their lives.4

La Rencontre (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet) 1854

Courbet, a French painter of the Realism-Impressionism period, was never one for subtlety. His paintings are well known not just for their skillful rendering, but for his blazing red signature across the bottom. Whether or not he was painting himself into one (which he did quite a lot), his blatant possession of the image reminds the viewer that he is the maker of whatever you are seeing. He took pride in purposefully altering his landscapes and figures to voice his opinion about them. La Rencontre is a beautiful painting of the French countryside. He paints himself as a young man with a sardonic beard, immaculately parted hair, armed with a walking stick and a knapsack. He is a wanderer at ease in his own country, who comes upon two friends. By injecting himself and these two gentlemen into the rural scene, he is commenting on who they all are. He is painted to look like he belongs in the scene, while they are dressed in more formal, city-like attire. Unlike Raphael, who paints himself and his peers as a united entity, Courbet is discussing the boundaries and differences between the artists and thinkers of his time.

As fine artist’s, we will continue to strive to understand ourselves and one another. The produce of this search is beautiful and thought provoking works to keep us talking for centuries