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Friday, October 2, 2015

The Self-Portrait Still-Life

Acrylic Still Life of Old Shoe and Paint Supplies, Michael Galligan
Still life of my shoes, Rachel Toles
It takes a certain amount of ego for an artist to paint a self-portrait. Most have no shortage of that commodity, some artists leaving us with dozens of such paintings. For those more on the shy side, there are other ways to capture ones "self" other than with mirrors of "selfie" photos. Anyone who has ever had the heartrending task of going through the most personal possessions of a loved one after their death knows that, as emotionally trying as it might be, you come away with a far sharper image of that person as a result. Things reflect who we are. What we save, what we discard, says a lot about our personality and values. For artists, of course, there's the tools of their trade--brushes, tubes of paint, photos, pencils, erasers, etc. But those items are mostly professional in nature. A very wise individual once said words to the effect, "you don't know someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes." Combine the artist's tools and shoes, as Michael Galligan has in his painting, Acrylic Still Life of Old Shoe and Paint Supplies (above), and you have the quintessential self-portrait still-life. Rachel Toles had somewhat the same idea (left) but apparently has better things to do with her shoes than stuff them full of art stuff.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Before, (top, left) 2001; Shafts of Color (left), 2001; Portrait of the Artist (center)
and Painted Paint Painting (right), 1994.
A Vanitas Still Life: A Globe, a Casket
of Jewels and Medallions, Books a
Hurdy Gurdy, a Bagpipe, a lute, a
Violin, a silver Tazza, a Roemer, a
Nautilus Shell, a Recorder, a Shawm a
Print with a Self-Portrait of the Artist
and a Musical Score on a Draped Table,
a Curtain above, 1662, Edwaert Collier
I know of what I speak. Over the years I've made a number of attempts to capture my "self" without painting myself (above). I'm sorry about the quality of some of the images, but all but one of these self-portraits are now "long gone." Inasmuch as the "self-portrait still-life" is far from a recognized painting category, no one has really researched the history of such art. But from what I've found, it would seem they date back at least to the 17th-century and the fascinating Dutch Vanitas still-lifes from the much-touted "Golden Age." Edwaert Collier's A Vanitas Still Life (left), from 1662, stops short of labeling the items cluttering his composition as personal, nor has he included art supplies, but even a cursory inspection suggests this was a very personal statement of that which interested him and things he held dear. The title says it all (boy, does it ever). A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a title more than fifty words long does add a certain air of distinction to the work. Along the same line, Ephraim Rubenstein's Still Life With Books, Mirrors, and Lenses II (below), from 2003, may have a more modern look, but the tendency of such artists to supply a "laundry list" of plainly depicted content still lingers.

Still Life With Books, Mirrors, and Lenses II, 2003, Ephraim Rubenstein
Hand with Reflecting Sphere,
1935, M.C. Escher
Some artists from the past have painted self-portrait still-lifes on a scale far beyond that of Collier and Rubenstein. The French Impressionist, Frederick Bazille, with his The Artist's Studio (below), from 1870, left us a "still-life" the size of an entire room, decorated with some of his paintings and peopled with himself, some would-be clients, and a few of his artist friends. That may stretch the definition of both the self-portrait and the still-life quite a bit, but it nonetheless paints a highly accurate image of the artist with a great deal of detailed depth. The famous etcher, M.C. Escher, in his drawing, Hand with Reflecting Sphere, (right), from 1935, did much the same thing utilizing a crystal sphere, hand-held, which reflects not just his own image but his studio as well. It's undoubtedly the most daringly original self-portrait still-life ever put forth.

The Artist's Studio, 1870, Frederick Bazille
Despite these exceptional, "outside the box" self-portrait still-lifes, most painters (myself included) still tend to cling to their image as professional artists. In researching this presentation I found so my excellent examples, utilizing many different styles, and approaches I've found it impossible to choose among them. So, I'm presenting them all (below) in the hope that one or more may inspire the artists reading these works to paint a self-portrait without their own pretty face.

Nature Morte a la Palette, Andre Vignoles
Work in Progress, Debbie Shirley
My Art Studio, Patti Schermerhorn

Still-life Self-portrait, FrankieCee
Painting Materials,
1949, Fairfield Porter
The Artist's Tools, 2011,
Michael Naples
The Art of Penny Soto


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