Self-Portraiture and Self-Reflection!

Hey everyone, I hope you enjoyed this relatively short article and another fun round of “Where’s Waldo”! I found Brusati’s essay to be quite engaging, alongside the little game of finding the artists inside the portraits. I have to say, it reminded me so much of optical illusions, in the sense that you are searching for figures in the painting that might not be so obvious to find. I don’t want to talk too much about the stuff yet, because I want to save some for our awesome discussion on Thursday. Obviously, I want this to be discussion based, so feel free to comment on my questions or even just vent out your thoughts while reading the article. I can’t wait to discuss the article in class on Thursday!

–       Jess


1.      I wanted to start off by addressing the traditional conventions of portraiture. Brusati states that “instead of appearing in pictures as embodied human subjects according to the usual conventions of portraiture, these still-life painters transform themselves into pictures”. Do you agree with this statement? If so, are they still portraits or a hybrid form of painting  that have portrait-like qualities?

2.      I also wanted to take a moment to reflect on the theoretical interaction between the artist, subject, possible patron, and audience. How do you think subjects would react to the insertion of the artist into the painting alongside the sitter? Do you believe that this was a possible way to not only inflate the ego of the artist, as well as increase the value of the painting for the sitter? 

3.      As we have seen in some of the portraits Brusati has presented, the artists’ depictions of themselves are sometimes more hidden than others. Consider Clara Peeter’s Still Life, and Peter Paul Rubens Four Philosophers. Based on Brusati’s theories, can we make such strong assumptions about the artists’ character based on how they depict themselves in the work, or are we looking to deep into their character, as previous articles have warned against?

4.       Celeste Brusati mentions that one of the concerns with vanitas still-life imagery is the focus on “morality and the fragility of human life – its pleasures, passions, possessions, and ambitions”. I wanted to open up a discussion about Brusati’s statement. Could you not say that portraits in general can potentially be seen in a negative light, by displaying ones’ vanity for all others to see?

5.      Ok so let’s talk about Samuel van Hoogstraeten. Brusati states that “the artist disappears into the artistry, with his pictorial counterfeit of the brush, mirror, comb, and other implements he used to fashion his appearance”. This reminded me very much of Arcimboldo’s Fire, based on the concept of the items make the man, literally. However in Hoogstraeten’s work the items do not create a physical likeness in the literal sense. Are these 2 works still portraits are they only portraits figuratively?


17 responses

  1. I really enjoyed this article. Great choice, Jess. In regards to your first question, I think I see these works as a sort of hybrid still-life/portrait. Perhaps even as though the portraits of the artist is acting as a signature. In my mind they definitely aren’t acting as only one or the other.

    I’m really interested in the way that the Netherlandsish society was able to foster this practice — arguably because of their emphasis on craftsmanship and highly representational works. On page 168, Brusati writes, “The makers of these works do not assert the intellectual at the expense of the mechanical aspects of painting, but rather take great pains to associate and even to identify themselves with the representational craft of painting.” I don’t have a real question here, but just think that it makes since that this is occurring in the Netherlands. Donna, does this happen else where?

    I’m trying to decide whether Samuel van Hoogstraeten’s work is a portrait after reading your question. Based on the consensus of articles we’ve read thus far I would have to say no because it’s non-figurative. However, I’m wondering if van Hoogstraeten is actually creating a piece that reveals more about his character by not including his physical self? Maybe? Maybe not? I think that accoutrement can definitely say more about a person than just their physical self can, but I’m not sure if it truly reveals anything about one’s character. BUT do portraits have, or really ever, reveal one’s true character since they are purposefully constructed for others to see? I’m sorry for the probably incredibly long winded and convoluted stream of consciousness! I look forward to discussing tomorrow.

  2. It’s really interesting that you should bring up this passage, Katherine, because I was struck by technical prowess in the Netherlandish works versus the conquest of measurable space, say, in an Italian Renaissance work. If we spot the artist in the latter, he is usually looking out at us from the far right side of the painting, embodied, as it were, as one of the actors in the scene. What a fascinating divergence! I would love to discuss this further.

  3. Great article choice Jess! I loved how Brusati uses a lot of descriptive analysis of the portraits within the article. Sometimes the elaboration within art history articles is lacking.
    Other than that, I would like to focus my comment on Clara Peeters. I thought that what she created within her portraits was extremely innovative and well rounded. She not only made a pass at an earlier genius with her use of oil paints in the particular way that made objects more brilliant and spectacular like in van Eyck paintings, but she also added her own sort of cultural commentary. I think that she was trying to make people realize that art was becoming a commodity and something that people bought to be a reflection upon what they thought they were. Especially when her still life’s included objects prestigious persons would have had contained in a kunstkammer. It was ingenious to put herself in there as well. It not only showed off her artistic mastery of reflective surfaces, but also gave the painting an almost subliminal message that the artist was contained within the work of art itself. Kind of a reminder to the buyer that it was not only the objects in the painting that they were adding to their collections…but her as well. Overall I think this will be a brilliant discussion in class tomorrow!

  4. I really enjoyed this article! You made a great selection. I am so excited to see a positive portrayal of a female artist! There was not a negative thing said about her! How refreshing!!! I really like what Sarah pointed out and this brings to a head some of the other things discussed over the semester, namely, the ways in which a portrait transforms someone into an object. It was interesting to see this done with both men and women. I also wonder at how these paintings were perceived during their time. Would a buyer see the self portrait as merely an example of skill, or would they see it as something deeper?

    Now to your questions, I do agree that a portrait does not have to have the anatomy of an individual in order to represent the sitter. I personally feel that many objects around my room tell more about me than portraits of myself. I also think that a portrait, as well as the manner in which one chooses to represent themselves is very much representative of the artist themselves (excepting perhaps a patronage that asks for a certain thing).

    I really look forward to discussing this and cannot wait to hear more comments for ya’ll!

  5. Hello portrait friends!

    It is late as I read this article, so I hope that I can be coherent! Great article, Jess! I think it has really great visual analyses! Like Sarah mentioned, sometimes descriptions of works of art in articles are lacking, even sometimes completely absent. It was highly enjoyable to read the way she described the works.

    As for your second question: I think it is possible that the subject or patron of the work might react to the artist inserting himself into the painting much like how we today might react to Karl Lagerfeld’s face on a tee shirt that he designed for us to buy. Does that make sense? A better example might be the Chanel logo on a handbag– yes, I believe it does increase the value of the object (be it painting, handbag, or tee shirt etc.) for the sitter/consumer. Seeing the artisans face/logo reminds you that you have something luxurious, expensive, maybe even coveted; so yes, the artist’s/designer’s appearance on the work has significance for the sitter/consumer, in my opinion. And yes, I do believe that would inflate the ego of the artist too. If the artist didn’t get something out of painstakingly and subtly painting in their face into a work of art (such as the Vanitas works), I do not think they would do it. A signature would be sufficient.

    Hope this makes sense! I’m looking forward to our class discussion tomorrow! 🙂


  6. Hello everyone!

    This was a particularly enjoyable and refreshing read, Jess! These Dutch portraits provide a more intimate viewing experience because you have to take time to search for the artists’ images (if there are any). As to the idea of portrait vs. hybrid (perhaps of still life and portrait), there is West’s definition of a portrait to consider: “a work of art that represents a unique individual’s likeness and/or social position or inner life.” That being said, all the works featured in this article are representations of either the artists’ actual image, or their importance/social station.. I agree with Natalie and Katherine: Often we can select different items that tell more about who we are or how we want the viewing world to see us. I wonder, is this more of “I am the sum of my parts”–or rather of “these presented parts”? Brusati claims that in the cases of Gysbrechts and van Hoogstraeten, the artists have chosen their technical virtuosity alone to represent themselves–literally the likeness-maker[s].

    I was curious as to Brusati’s opinion of Clara Peeters’ Still Life. She says Peeters’ images are self-effacing, because they only reveal her technical skill but practically nothing about her character or personality. Yet she later says that Peeters forms her professional identity through the power of her mimetic skills. Is it safe to say that Peeters was a professional (i.e. character)?
    Referring to vanitas implications of still life pictures, Brusati questions the humanist tendency to claim that the luxurious and rare objects in still lifes symbolize transient existence and death: “Are these pictures produced primarily to offer moral edification and reminders of mortality? Do they not also nurture the cherished fiction that that which is ephemeral can be possessed and preserved–at least in art–from the ravages of time?” (175) THANK YOU!! I’ve been wondering about these morbid interpretations for a while; cannot the objects be there because they are rare, luxurious and pretty? Is there no such thing as artistic license in art history?

    Also, Jenna: Exactly! Inserting one’s face in the portrait is quite presumptuous; then again, perhaps that was assurance of authenticity and something of a copyright. It is likely that patrons were not too amused when a mere signature could suffice; yet, considering the abundance of still life setups in oil paint, who’s to say another artist could not easily copy it, if not for that hidden image?

    i would also like to bring up “schijin-eyghentlijcke kracht” and footnote 7, pg 171. It says that the values of pictures depends not only on imitative skill they display, but also on the significance of their subjects.” Artist skill is finally being accounted for in a non-disparaging way, yet again, is absolute likeness a requisite for a picture to be aesthetically pleasing and valuable?

  7. Reblogged this on SPECTRUM: my multicolored universe and commented:
    I am really enjoying my portraiture class and the issues that come up–namely those of likeness, representation, the gaze and subject versus object. As research into self-portraiture will prove invaluable to my senior seminar project (a study of form, figure, pattern and color, and self-definition), I’m reposting the conversation my portraiture class is having over Celeste Brusati’s “Stilled Lives: Self-Portraiture and Self-Reflection in 17th-Century Netherlands Still-Life Painting”

  8. I also enjoyed this article, and I was most interested in Van Hoogstraeten’s works. Your question about whether these are portraits in a figurative way is one I would like to explore more in depth. I am inclined to say they are portraits because although there is no physical likeness, the work tells us so much about the man. It’s also really interesting to note what the painting lacks — painter’s tools!! Last weekend I was at the High Museum for an artist talk. Alex Harris, a photographer, showed several photographs that he said were in fact portraits although there were no humans in them. Here is one example: Harris stated that this man only wore a tie 5-6 times a year and had no idea how to tie one, but he kept a stash on hand so that when he needed a tie he had one at the ready. On a separate note, I am curious to learn more about the “obsession with the ephemeral” and wonder what world events were happening to influence their obsession with mortality and the fragility of human life? Also, I want to understand the statement on page 175 which states that worldly attachments “were both desired and feared.”

    • Love the connection you make with the portraits of Alex Harris—-again makes me eager to add a literary portrait to this class. The obsession with the ephemeral in the 17th century can be summed up in one word: Galileo. Maybe two words—Descartes and Galileo. The scientific discoveries of that century blew people away —-one of my favorite quotes from that period is that “the infinite spaces frighten me.” Here is a quick summary of the scientific revolution of that period:
      The Telescope
      Nicholaus Copernicus, a Polish church official, made astronomical observations. Copernicus proposed the theory that the Earth actually orbited the Sun along with other planets. However, as a church official, Copernicus had to be cautious in introducing his idea that the Earth was not the center of the Universe. Due to this sensitive situation Copernicus didn’t publish his ideas until the end of his life (9).

      Johannes Kepler was a German scholar and mathematician who worked under Tyle Brahe. Kepler corresponded with Galileo and favored the Copernican world view. Brahe had made measurement of the position of Mars, which suggested a solar system different from that of both Ptolemy and Copernicus. Even though Brahe hired Kepler, Brahe was very protective of his data. Kepler obtained Brahe’s observations after he died and concluded, after Galileo’s use of the telescope, that Mar’s orbit fit the pattern of an ellipse. Kepler was the first to discover the elliptical paths of the planets. Because of this Kepler wrote his Three Laws of Planetary Motion are as follows:

      1. Planets move in ellipses with the Sun at one focus with the other focus empty

      2. The radius vector describes equal areas in equal times- “the line joining the planet to the Sun sweeps over equal areas in equal time intervals”

      3. Squares of periodic times are to each other as cubes of the mean distances- “For any planet, the square of its period of revolution is directly proportional to the cube of its mean distance from the Sun” (4)

      Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727) proved Kepler’s Laws to be the result of the laws of physics. Kepler’s first law implies that the planets are continually accelerating since they move elliptically. Kepler’s second law shows that the force must be directed toward the sun from the planet at all times if the sun/planet line sweeps out equal areas in equal times. Kepler’s third law and Newton’s third law imply that the product of the masses of the planet and the sun must be proportional to the force. Overall, this states that the force that holds the planets in their elliptical path by continuously changing the planet’s velocity is 1) directed toward the sun, 2) inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the sun and the planet and 3) proportional to the product of the masses of the sun and the planet. The constant of proportionality is the gravitational force, G. Therefore, the planets obey the same laws of motion as objects on the surface of the Earth. Newton’s three laws can be found below:

      1. The Law of Inertia- a body in uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

      2. F=ma- The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma. Acceleration and force are vectors (in this law the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector).

      3. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (6).

      Ole Roemer measured the speed of light in 1676 using the revolutions of one of Jupiter’s moons about Jupiter. Roemer timed the ellipses of Io to determine an accurate value of the satellite’s orbital period because navigators that this could be used to read the absolute time like a clock. However, Roemer noticed that the time interval between successive ellipses changed. As Earth moves away from Jupiter, the time interval increases. Conversely, the time interval decreases as Earth moves towards Jupiter in its orbit. He found that when Earth was nearest to Jupiter the eclipses would occur eleven minutes earlier than predicted and when Earth was farthest from Jupiter eclipses would occur eleven minutes later than predicted. Therefore, he concluded that the time difference must be due to the finite speed of light. Roemer estimated that it took 22 minutes for light to travel the diameter of the Earth’s orbit. Then he divided the diameter of the Earth’s orbit by the time difference to find the speed of light (8).

      Sorry for that science lesson—-back to art history! The possession of beautiful objects was a double-edged sword because people wanted the finely crafted jewels and paintings of the period but knew they were symbols of the vanity that man could possess anything (for we all die and one can’t take “it” with us!)—-oh vanity of vanities! Many works were inscribed with that saying in Latin at the top!

      Can’t wait to discuss both of these articles.

  9. “instead of appearing in pictures as embodied human subjects according to the usual conventions of portraiture, these still-life painters transform themselves into pictures”. Do you agree with this statement? Yes, I would say so. The common idea is that artists put themselves into their art. These artists went pretty literal on this idea, as have many other artists that were not shown in this article. The ideas of portraiture are being challenged constantly, such as the BP Portrait awards recently, where almost all of the paintings were traditional looking portraits, except one that was very different, where the scene is not at first clearly a portrait, except that we see part of the reflection of the artist in his darkened iphone screen ( We are constantly reevaluating what it means to be in a portrait, and, just like the kuntskammers, there are many ways to be depicted as a portrait or a self-portrait, ways that might not be obvious at first or to an untrained eye.

    • Indeed, I would argue that we need to enlarge our understanding of what it means to be embodied! According to Merleau-Ponty all vision is experiential or embodied and I think the body may be the ultimate shape-shifter in this equation! Interesting connection to the UK exhibition—-thank you for bringing that in!

  10. 4. In general, I would agree portraits could display the vanity of the sitter, but in the case of artists’ reflections in vanitas paintings, I believe this increases the impact of the piece. Like the decaying flowers, fish, hollow instruments, extinguished candles, etc., the artist’s reflection serves as a memento mori. Reflections are temporary and subject to an end; one only needs to leave the room for their reflection to disappear. Additionally, the reflection of the artist is captured from a particular moment. This image will remain the same, but the artist will age and no longer appear like the reflection. Therefore, I believe including a self reflection in a vanitas serves to further the artist’s point by calling on the vanity associated with reflections.

    • I never thought of the fact that the artist’s appearance would change—-thus adding to the Vanitas aspect of the painting—-I think we need to return to the Barthes vs. Benjamin discussion about whether an image = death or whether it prolongs life/memory!

  11. 1. Brusati states that “instead of appearing in pictures as embodied human subjects according to the usual conventions of portraiture, these still-life painters transform themselves into pictures”. I don’t agree with this statement fully. This states that the still-lives that they create are pictures. This could be true but we must remember that every still life is a different representation of the similar objects. I understand how these still life painters transform themselves into pictures. However, I disagree with the first part of this statement. I don’t agree with the terminology.

  12. 4. I do think that portraits of vanity can be in a negative life. The one example I think about is the group family portrait that has one of the woman having gangrene. It is supposed to illustrate a family of royal stature. However, It pokes back to the royal family. It could also cause for the subjects to look arrogant. For most of history, vanity has always been a way to help with power and is known to hid the hardships that were currently going on. In this case, vanity is negative.

    • I was referring to the aspect of Vanitas in these paintings, that is that all things wither and die. The beautiful objects in these paintings reminded their owners that one could not take possessions with them to the grave.

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