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Secret self-portraits in the paintings by seven famous artists

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The maxim of the Renaissance era, Every Painter Paints Himself, dates back to as early as the fifteenth century. It still holds true today, though. In the history of art, besides creating traditional self-portraits, painters now and then made secret indications of their authorship by including the likenesses of themselves in their paintings. Sometimes, these indications seem quite inventive and surprising.
Artists developed the sense of self-esteem and pride of themselves as early as in the Renaissance period, when it became a humanistic principle to value an individual and one’s creative activity. In those days in Europe, secret self-portraits were of two types. Italian artists usually painted themselves in the right part of their canvases or altarpieces, with their eyes intentionally directed towards the spectators.
Sandro Botticelli. The adoration of the Magi
The picture Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475) showing the members of the Medici clan. It is supposed that on the far right, Sandro Botticelli painted his own likeness.
Unlike their colleagues in the south, Northern Renaissance artists were quite inventive in using obscure symbols, and they loved demonstrating their artistic skills. The self-portraits found in their pictures were quite often distorted reflections on polished surfaces, like those of mirrors or of metal dishware.

These traditions, which are traced back into the Golden Age of painting, later rooted in Modernism and have survived till the present day. Below, there are only seven of a great many self-portraits the artists hid in some of their well-known artworks.

Jan van Eyck. The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

The picture, one of the most mysterious in Western Art history, is of extreme interest for a curious mind. In this magnificent companion portrait, Jan van Eyck diligently painted a number of objects giving a clear message of the portrayed people’s wealth. Besides, there are other symbolic details, and most of them are found in the small round mirror behind the couple. For example, it reflects two other figures as they are entering the room.
The head of the household has raised his hand in salute, and one of the mirrored men replies to it in a similar way. (There is another version, though, that Arnolfini’s gesture signifies making a vow in the presence of witnesses.) Directly above the mirror, there are the words Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 ("Jan van Eyck was here. 1434"). Does it mean that the two mirrored people are the painter himself and his assistant? Well, this is one of the greatest mysteries in the history of art.

Raphael. The School of Athens (1509—1511)

Raphael's acclaimed fresco on the wall of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican is a eulogy on philosophy. A whole host of the most venerated thinkers of antiquity, from Pythagoras to Ptolemy, populate the vaulted marble hall, with columns and coffering on the ceiling.

The fresco is a real who’s who of the intellectual icons of the Renaissance. By this mural, Raphael linked his time with the glorious past. According to Giorgio Vasari, the classical philosophers represent Raphael’s contemporaries. Donato Bramante, who has stooped down over the writing slate, is shown as Euclid (or, perhaps, Archimedes); Leonardo da Vinci is considered to represent Plato, and Michelangelo may be portrayed as Heraclitus. The painter could not resist the temptation of including himself into the company — his curious face peeps out from behind the arch on the right, in the far corner of the fresco, next to Ptolemy and Zoroaster (see the title illustration to this publication).

Michelangelo. The Last Judgment (1536—1541)

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Self-portrait on the wall of the Sistine chapel

Michelangelo. The self-portrait on the wall of the Sistine Chapel

It is no secret that Michelangelo had a deep aversion to being commissioned to paint frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. In 1509, the artist addressed a verse to his friend and told there about the long hours he was spending supine:
"…a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin."

Finally, while painting the Last Judgment on the chapel’s altar wall, he, one of the pillars of the Renaissance, found a most clever way of expressing his disappointment — and of amusing himself at the Pope’s expense. In the middle of the monumental mural, Saint Bartholomew holds a human skin (the apostle was flayed alive during an act of faith, and then beheaded). The blank and ghoulish face of the empty skin is Michelangelo’s.

Caravaggio. David with the Head of Goliath (1609—1610)

Before his untimely death at the age of thirty-eight, Caravaggio featured himself in various guises, most often as Bacchus, the Greek god of winemaking. In his last year, he decided to insert his self-portrait in the picture of David holding Goliath’s severed head. It was one of the versions of this Biblical story he had created during his career. However, this time, the painter introduced an original, emotional nuance into the traditional bloody and sombre tale of the Right opposing the Might.
Here, Caravaggio is not the victorious David, young and attractive, but Goliath, with the mouth hanging open to indicate his utter defeat. And David, too, when looking at his trophy, evinces little joy about his victory. Instead, he seems rather melancholic and thoughtful, even regretful. Scientists presume that the model for the young hero was Cecco, the artist’s studio assistant and, supposedly, his love partner. If so, the canvas appears to have an unexpected psychosexual background, which is only reinforced by David’s sword placed between his legs.

Clara Peeters. Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels (c. 1615)

Dutch still lifes may seem quite plain, but they often represent insightful meditation on life and death. Though the painting techniques of this genre and its intellectual features could have become a challenge for paintresses, it was seventeenth-century women who were the most successful in it. One of the greatest still life artists of her time was Clara Peeters.
Clara Peeters’s self-portrait in the panel painting Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels (c. 1615)
A lot of Dutch artists of that period were fond of painting opulent compositions including oysters, pies, exotic fruit, and peppercorns on dishes of silver and gold. But Peeters preferred to depict humble local dairy products, like cheese or butter, and loaves of rustic bread. However, she could not help the desire to demonstrate her excellent artfulness in one of her still lifes that featured a lot of blocks of cheese, almonds, and elegantly shaped pretzels. On the tin lid of the ceramic jar, Peeters carefully painted her own face that scrupulously followed all the curvatures of the object’s surface. Instead of putting a traditional signature, the paintress ‘carved' her name on the handle of the silver butter knife.

Jacques-Louis David. The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame (1805—1807)

The French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David is an interesting figure of the Revolution-era France. Though he played quite a role in the overthrow of the monarchy, after the war, he was canny enough to demonstrate his loyalty to Napoleon. He was made a court painter and the Emperor’s main propagandist.
Napoleon himself tasked David with depicting his grand coronation ceremony (1804) in a monumental historical painting, which was supposed to convey the forceful political message of the new rule. Today, this artwork takes pride of place in a large room at the Louvre. So great it is that the figures look painted life-size. You feel as if you are in person one of the crowd of people in festive attire, watching with your own eyes how Napoleon is putting the crown on Joséphine's head.
A detail of The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame, with Jacques-Louis David’s self-portrait
David is sitting in the stands in the centre of the composition, making quick sketches of the scene, surrounded by the royalty and other aristocrats dressed up in velvet, furs, and satin. The painter, indeed, was present at the ceremony in Notre Dame. The fact that he included himself in the final version of the picture is to indicate his loyalty to the Crown and remind about the undeniable greatness of his artistic achievements.

Paul Gauguin. Study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of a Child Asleep (1881)

With the Impressionists and Modern art painters, it was common practice to place themselves in their own pictures, in various scenes in Parisian cafés, bars, and parks. For example, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted himself in the background of his picture At the Moulin Rouge (1892—1895) as a customer of his favourite public place.
However, in his Study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of a Child Asleep
, Paul Gauguin's approach to self-portrayal is really strange. Beside the sleeping child’s bed, there is a spooky-looking doll of a clown, so true to life that it seems to be a living thing. Have a close look at its face: you will see that this jester is Gauguin himself. Perhaps, Gauguin means the toy to be a detail of the child’s dream. If so, it is rather a nightmare than a phantasy.

If you know any pictures containing their creator’s hidden self-portraits, give their names in the comments below this article.

Based on Artsy.net materials
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 Comments  2
Aleksandr Mikhaylenko
, September 24 04:40 AM 4
Original   Auto-Translated
Карл Брюллов- «Последний день Помпеи»
Pavel Dyatlov
, September 25 12:40 AM 3
Original   Auto-Translated
Василий Пукирев, "Неравный брак".
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