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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Michiel van Musscher

Michiel van Musscher Self-portrait (detail), 1673. He was twenty-eight at the time.                          
Virtually any portrait artist today will tell you that the best asset an artist can have in the perpetual quest for portrait commissions is an outstanding portrait of oneself. Otherwise, as a would-be client looks over your accumulated works,the best you can do is post a photo of the subject next to a portrait to show you can first capture a likeness, and some degree of personality and character as well. Some artists paint portraits of well-known celebrities in lieu of the source photo. However when you display a self-portrait, or better yet, several done over a period of years in various sizes, styles, colors, and settings, there's no need for the photo, you have the model close at hand--the model wearing your shoes. An outstanding self-portrait is the best advertisement a portrait artist can have. Painted portraits today are a relatively minor part of the art market. Portrait photography had eaten deeply into that client base. Thus the portrait artist and his or her self-portrait must be exquisitely outstanding to cause the client to forego the automatic likeness of a portrait photo in favor of trusting an artist to do just as well. A recent self-portrait does just that.
Michiel Musscher Self-portrait, 1679--rich clothes, rich colors, rich artifacts, Musscher knew the formula for success. Here he is thirty-four.
Michiel van Musscher,
etching by Jakob Torenvliet,
Before photography, portraiture was at or near the top of the content hierarchy, second only to history or religious works. Even for the very best painters of such giant canvases, portraits were often their mainstay financially--their "bread and butter," so to speak. Never was this more the case than in the Netherlands during what we've (all too often, I imagine) come to call the "Golden Age" of Dutch painting. The competition among portrait artists was keen. Quality was uniformly good to great, while prices varied somewhat based mostly on an artist's name recognition and local popularity. In Amsterdam, during the second half of the 17th-century, the top name in portraiture was Michiel van Musscher. Rembrandt was dead, or at least no longer in favor. Vermeer painted too damned slowly to attract portrait clients, not to mention the fact he favored beautiful ladies in genre scenes anyway. There were others, but Musscher was usually considered the best.

Michiel van Musscher Self-portrait In Studio
Michiel van Musscher was born in 1645 and was something of a child prodigy. He was also a meticulous record keeper, noting in his journal the names and number of lessons he took from every artist under whom he studied. Except for Gabriel Metsu, none were particularly noteworthy. He made a note of that fact as well. Michiel van Musscher Self-portrait in Studio (left) may be his first self-portrait. The date is unclear. So is the face, which is not good when painting a sample portrait. He appears to be quite young though, perhaps still in his teens. In any case, his 1673 self-portrait (top) in much better. His 1679 effort seems to be something of a hybrid, combining the best features of both his earlier attempts.

Self-portrait with family, ca. 1701, Michiel van Musscher. It has a somewhat "Frenchy," rather "un-Dutch" look about it, more Rococo than Baroque.
Self-portrait with Portrait Miniature,
1692, Michiel van Musscher.
Musscher married in 1678, and again in 1693. And, if the self-portrait including his wife and family (above) which dates from around 1701, is to be believed, they apparently had at least three children. One of the difficulties in dealing with Musscher's self-portraits is that there are several that are attributed to him based mostly on his familiar face and the fact that during his later years he seems to have "knocked one out," whenever he had nothing better to do. Moreover, it's a tribute to Musscher's popularity as an artist that printmakers very often chose to do etchings based upon these paintings. It's uncertain whether Musscher cooperated in these efforts or not. He seems to have just enough ego to have welcomed the attention, which, of course, was good for business as well. Musscher's Self-portrait with Portrait Miniature (left) from 1692, seems to have been painted entirely to advertise his skill as a miniaturist. The self-portrait (below, left) seems to have been painted specifically for the etching (below, right). Both of these Musscher may have done himself.

Michiel van Musscher Self-portrait
The etching dates from 1685.
Other etchings were clearly done years later based upon some of Musscher's early self-portraits such as the engraving below by Johannes Meyssens, based upon the youthful self-portrait pictured earlier. Beyond these, the attributions begin to roll in. While they appear to bear Musscher's handsome likeness, it's anybody's guess who actually painted (or etched) them. Some seem rather doubtful, at best (bottom).

Portrait of a Young Artist, engraved by Johannes Meyssens

Portrait of an Artist Smoking a Pipe (left), and Portrait of a Man (right),
both a attributed to Michiel van Musscher.

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