Frances has many years' experience writing about exhibitions in art galleries and museums.
From November 2016 to April 2017, the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace presented Portrait of the Artist, the first-ever exhibition of portraits of artists in the Royal Collection.
Through more than 150 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and decorative arts, Portrait of the Artist examined how artists presented themselves in self-portraits.
The display, curated by Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter and Martin Clayton, was set out thematically and explored the cult of the artistic personality.
We saw how, from the 16th century onwards, attitudes towards artists changed as they rose to a higher social status rather than just being skilled artisans. This rise was partly influenced by royal patronage. Medieval artists' guides were replaced by workshops led by a master. These were soon followed by the first art academies.
As artists achieved recognition in society, the demand for portraits of those artists, especially those artists regarded as exceptional, increased. In addition, many artists used self-portraiture to demonstrate their skills to potential customers.
Some of these portraits became exceedingly valuable items often acquired or commissioned by monarchs and other wealthy patrons. For example, Charles I's Surveyor of Pictures, in his inventory compiled in the late 1630s, lists self-portraits by Daniel Mytens and Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
The 1666 inventory of Charles II's collection includes Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c.1638–9), Rubens's self-portrait (1623), and portrait of his former assistant Anthony van Dyck (c.1627–8).
During the 17th century, improvements in optics and the manufacture of mirrors allowed artists to become more adventurous and ambitious in their self-portraits.
Gentileschi captures herself from an unusual angle with the aid of two mirrors strategically placed. Holding a palette in one hand and a brush in the other, she shows herself as the female personification of painting. Gentileschi was invited to London in 1638 by Charles I, and it is likely that she created this highly accomplished self-portrait during her visit.
The Artist at Work
Many artists have chosen to depict artists at work. For example, Austrian artist Eduard Jakob von Steinle (1810–1886) shows St. Luke the Evangelist painting the Virgin and Child.
Early Christians believed St. Luke did paint an icon of the Virgin and Child and they adopted him as the patron saint of artists.
Eduard Steinle was linked to the Nazarenes, a group of artists who sought to revive the techniques and subjects of medieval and early Renaissance artists.
Artists Playing a Role
It was very common for artists to incorporate their own image into their work. Using costumes, actions, props and settings, artists showed themselves in a variety of roles.
Frederick Leighton (1st Baron Leighton of Stretton 1830–1896) places himself, as Cimabue, at the very centre of his monumental Madonna Carried in Procession (1855).
Dressed in white, he leads his most famous pupil, Giotto, by the hand. The colourful crowd of revellers escorts a 13th-century altarpiece, the Rucellai Madonna, through the streets of Florence to the church of Santa Maria Novella. The exhibition demonstrated how Leighton's work “encapsulates the Victorian artist's belief that, during the Renaissance, great art was appreciated at all levels of society and artists were held in high esteem, their genius widely acknowledged.”
Leighton produced this painting based on an account of the artist's life by the biographer Giorgio Vasari recorded in Delle vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori (1568).
Portrait of the Artist - Royal Collection Publication
To accompany the exhibition the Royal Collection released a new publication entitled Portrait of the Artist focusing entirely on images of artists held in their collection.
This fully illustrated book presents paintings, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts by artists such as Rubens, Gentileschi, Melzi, Dürer, Reynolds, Freud, and many others.
Portrait of the Artist was hosted at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from 4th November 2016 to 17th April 2017.
© 2016 Frances Spiegel