Ways in which visual images of artists 1400-1900 reflect artistic aspirations regarding status

The conventional portrayal of the artist as creative and solitary genius as exemplified in the aura that surrounds artists like Van Gogh today is, as Barker, Webb and Woods note in the Historical Introduction (Book 2, pp. 723), indeed a ‘myth’ that has taken hold of the general consciousness. But it is to some extent a myth based on historical reality (Ibid. p. 9). As art history evolves over time it is evident that, in a similar manner, the identity of the artists also evolves.

In this essay I will be looking at a selection of images c. 1400 – c. 900 that provide primary evidence of how a variety of identities are represented, or aspired to, that together culminate into the general construction of this myth. In my analysis of these images I shall consider only qualities, or values, that relate directly to the question of artistic status, and concentrate largely on examples by Durer. Towards the end of the nineteenth century we can see in a painting by Courbet, entitled The Painter’s Studio (1855) (Beckett, p. 530), a reference to the myth of the artist as an isolated but exemplary member of society.

Courbet’s realism depicts the artist himself in his studio painting a realistic landscape surrounded by, as he claims, ‘all the people who served my cause’ (Ibid. ). In it we see nudes in their classical perfection, wealthy onlooker’s, musicians, intellectuals, religious members and the portrayal of the rural poor, amongst others. All the onlookers stand or sit in a frieze like composition arranged – by the artist – to draw us into the central image of the artists himself, somewhat detached but calmly superior. This variety of people, it is claimed (Ibid. , represents an allegory of social reality. Courbet is presenting himself as a well-dressed man facing those who ‘live’ (Ibid. ) and painting the reality around him rather than (to his back) the well-to-do Parisians whose life we can take as rather shadowed by non-reality. For our purposes here though it is the sense derived from the formal qualities that the artist is the one who makes these decisions and uses these people in his quest for truth. He is intrinsically involved with them, but somewhat independent and extrinsically better-placed through his creativity.

To understand how this perception became accepted, or aspired to, we need to retreat back into the origins of the ‘myth’. At the beginning of the period concerned – the fifteenth century – the rise of art and the interest in art as a humanist and intellectual pursuit is a defining characteristic (Book 2, pp15-17). The creation of an ideal art that surpasses nature through the artists’ practical skill (arte) and imaginative innate talent (ignegno) presupposes the presence of an artist able to do this.

Although it was still common for art to be produced in workshops and guilds, it is the individual hand of the artist, King argues (Book2, p. 59), that would be aimed at being produced. This identifies (mirroring the 4th C. Greek practice of singling out great artists, as Pliny does (Genius: Individualism in Art and Artists, Internet)) the value of individual talent that perhaps could not be taught but is available only in that person, or from their directions.

Tempering this renewed belief of an innate talent with a move away from manual workshops, the Renaissance provides the key to the individualisation of the artist; the artist as a liberal practitioner of a free art. This individualisation is most evident when we see the value placed on it by such writers as Vasari, but the importance lies in the fact that it provides the artist with a sense of self-awareness; a consciousness of their ability to have a status.

We see with Michelangelo the desire to be seen as an independent autonomous artist (as opposed to the mechanical craftsman) when he declares, ‘I am known only as Michelangelo… I have never been a painter or sculptor, in the sense of having kept a shop … ‘ (Gombrich, p. 238). This desire to not be seen as an ignorant labourer is not just a distinctive Italian concept however. The artist as a learned, intelligent and imaginative human being is demonstrable in the bronze relief from 1576 placed above Frans Floris’ door (Book 2, Pl. 89) at his house in Antwerp.

The relief portrays the personifications of the liberal arts; namely painting, sculpture and drawing. But the personifications surround the dominant image of the calculating and scientific representation of geometry that is looked down upon by Apollo and the personification of fame (Woods, Book 2, p. 117). It is not so much an image of the artist himself but a symbol of what that artist stands for in his liberal and humanist aspirations of status, and also a signifier of his present prosperity and depth of knowledge as his Italian influence and great wealth illustrate.

Durer also takes up this theme of representing the artist in this way. In Melancholia I (1514) (Book 2, Pl. 115) we can see a similar personification of the artistic ideal but where the woman in Floris’ relief is a proud and impressive character, here she sits darkly contemplating her destiny. The personification stares rather blankly whilst an un-carved stone sits nearby. She is surrounded by the physical (i. e. chisels, saw etc. ) and intellectual (i. e. scales, hour-glass, astrological symbols) tools required for the human and liberal artistic process.

The overall darkness of the image, the downward weight of it from the near vertical perspective, and our elevated position when looking at it (we look down onto the figures) formally gives the impression of heaviness and gloom. Instead of representing the essence of the artist then as the controlled and composed figure Durer presents both formal and iconographic methods of seeing the artist as a more melancholic figure, but still relying on the same methods of calculation and knowledge. This melancholy is, to paraphrase Wood (Ibid. p. 154), a natural constitution that makes people out of the ordinary.

The accompanying tension and strife encountered in the process of creativity creates the idea that the artist is someone who suffers for his art quite in contrast to the quiet and steady contemplation of the scholar, as seen in Melancholia I’s companion piece Saint Jerome in his Study (Book 2, pl. 119). So we can see that the reflection of status (rising above that of the simply learned person) evolves further into the image of an isolated, struggling, and committed genius.

Having a sense of one’s own genius as an artist however is not so much an aspiration but, to Durer, a God-given reality. In his self-portrait of 1500 (Book 2, pl. 4) the full frontal eye contact we receive with the artist’s own ‘true’ image (as the inscription – in the learned Latin – tells us) presents us with an unavoidable view of the artist as a powerful and confident person. In the introduction to part two in Book 2 Woods tells us (p. 106) that his raised right hand can be read as a signifier of the Salvator Mundi (saviour of the world). Whether this is true or not the self-portrait, in its near life size depiction and profound realism, still invites a particular formal reading of self-confidence and dignified sense of status as a driving force of art itself.

The image of the artist emerges from the darkness to confront the viewer with the ‘reality’ of individual and human artistic possibilities. Similarly, in his Feast of the Rosengarlands of 1506 (Study Handbook 2, pl. 14) we can see a self-portrait that also represents a strong self-identity. The painting itself portrays a strong classically religious image of the highest genre (which was we can note (TMA Booklet, p. 15) was well paid for), yet, like Courbet’s image, the eye is directly drawn to the image of the artist himself.

He stands, as Strieder writes (Ibid. ), ‘at a distance’ from the central (commissioned) activity, but in an eye-catching way. His orange dress mirrors the gold of the Pope (reflecting possibly a comparable stature? ) and contrasts the dark tree and cloak of his companion. He holds a sheet that reads, ‘A German produced this within the span of five months’ and below is his signature monogram (Ibid. ). Such use of composition and eye-catching formalities serve only to attract the attention of the viewer to the person who made all this happen.

That slightly detached but creatively superior and intellectually parallel person whose stature comfortable sits with those around him. The impact of representing the artist as a saturnine genius whom is divorced from everyday reality – one whose skills he wants to show as worthy of the greatest status (a status he suffers for) – brings about a whole new meaning to the value, or status, of the individual as an artist. What follows (in a rough chronology) is the Romantic Movement where art becomes the artist – where the artists’ emotional experiences and personality become the art itself – something that does not disappear even today.

As a romantic painter in the early nineteenth century, Turner (1775-1857) provides a host of examples of the emotional status of the artist being worthy itself as the subject of art. The world becomes a representation of the artist’s subjective response to it, and, along similar lines, Blake’s (1757-1827) extraordinary personal visions give us examples of the artist rejecting contemporary traditions of academic conservatism in favour of the internal imagination as a worthy source of inspiration (Dictionary of Art and Artists, p. 7). This evolution of the perception of the artist as portrayed in images of the artists themselves is not however so straightforward. During this period the Academicians would portray themselves still as disciplined members of a gentlemanly group – Reynolds, for instance in his Self-Portrait of 1747 (The National Portrait Gallery) portrays himself as a fashionable, well-dressed man aspiring to the academic taste, whose brushes and palette seem to be accessories to this fashion.

Reynolds was later regarded as a genius only through his ‘incessant industry’ and ‘exceptional character’ (Northcote, from Genius, p. 25) rather than any saturnine brilliance. Yet as a general guide to how images of artists reflect their aspirations regarding their status as artists, we can see common themes in the evolution of the perception of the artist from an unknown manual labourer to a free and intelligent genius.

In the late nineteenth century once again we can note portrayals of artists as solitary, and somewhat melancholic, figures whose innate genius and individual struggle to pursue their art is characterised in a painting by Delacroix; Michelangelo in his Studio (1850). As in the historical introduction (Book 2, p. 9) the image is based upon an already established iconography of the melancholic artist but serves to reinforce Delacroix’s romantic ideals of the value of the artist in producing art, and hence the high status artist’s accord to themselves that are consistent with the images they produce.

Therefore, although a plurality of identities are identifiable and are aspired to at any one time, we can see a generalised evolution of artistic status-awareness and individualised aspirations reflected in the visual images of artists c. 1400-c. 1900. These images correspond to a historical reality that supports the creation of the ‘myth’ I began with and helps construct a status of artistic eminence that culminates into an unshakable identity of solitary creative value in respect to that of the artist.