TRADITION of SELF-PORTRAITURE in PAINTING
As we have explored in an earlier blog on the Louvre panel of 5 men, Masaccio is an artist who is extremely aware of his place in art history. He is not the first painter to record his own features, however; some scholars feel that even in the 14th century in Italy artists were beginning to allow their own features to be presented in their art works. Giotto, for example, in the Arena Chapel in Padova (1305-6), may be the fellow painted in yellow cap and gown in the realm of the blessed in the Last Judgment.
Giotto's presumed self-portrait does not show the artist facing his audience, and his profile aims his entire figure towards the image of God in heaven, a sign that Giotto's own endeavor is pious work, even if he wants to include himself, a layman, in it. His figure gives permission to artists who follow him to create works in which self-portraiture has a place.
One of Giotto's pupils, Taddeo Gaddi, paints a secular panel of three men, with labels identifying them as himself, his father, and his son, three generations of artists:
While the labels here may be suspect, the ages of the men portrayed are not. The oldest member of the group is the furthest to the left, and should be labelled Gaddus Zenobi, or Gaddo Gaddi, the father of Taddeo and grandfather of Agnolo. This man has the whitest hair, the most wrinkles on his face and neck, and his placement to the left ensures that we "read" him as the first in the narrative of the family left to right. That would then mean that the central figure who looks out at us is the artist himself, Taddeo Gaddi, the middle-aged man, who has put himself between his mentor father and his student son, Agnolo, who appears on the far right. Agnolo has no wrinkles, has a youthful goatee and mustache neither of which have any white or grey hairs in them. He then is the youngest member of the family, the grandson of Gaddo and the son of Taddeo.
If Taddeo is the central character in this documentation, he is probably the first artist to show himself looking out at the viewer. Because his eyes seem slightly cross-eyed, and because the artist has little interest in anatomy, the picture we look at seems less realistic and more one-dimensional than 15th-century portraits of artists. However, as a model for the Louvre panel by Masaccio of the 5 men, 4 of whom are artists, it is an important record of self-portraiture and of artistic liaisons before Masaccio. This 14th-century panel is Taddeo's marking down his place in the generations of artists in his family. His father looks to him from the left and is his source of interest in art; his son looks in to him from the right and sees his father as mentor. Taddeo, like many middle-aged people, sees himself between the two generations, that of the past and that of the future. He positions himself between the two to say he is not alone in his endeavor, that artistry is an industry passed from father to son, from father to son, down the long line of generations.
The faces all seem at first to be on the same plane, but if you look closely at how the borders of their clothing are connected, the grandfather is furthest back in the pictorial space because oldest in time (his drapery is covered by the drapery of the central figure at the edges) and the grandson is furthest forward in the pictorial space (his drapery covers the drapery of the central figure); the line of past to future runs through the figures themselves by placing them spatially back to front, left to right; that means the identifying labels on the panel are wrong except for the grandson; the labels for his father and grandfather should be switched. The past is placed further back in space, the future, furthest forward. Taddeo is conscious of his place in his immediate family, but he is also conscious of his place in the line of artists stretching back into the past and forward into the future. His self-consciousness and willingness to look out at the viewer are both new, but artists after him develop those two qualities even more.
At the beginning of the 15th century another artist, this time outside of Florence, in Montepulciano, paints a self-portrait that faces the viewer for the first time in an altarpiece. Taddeo di Bartolo presents himself as his name saint, Thaddeus, in the scene of the Dormition of the Virgin at the bottom of the Assumption of the Virgin executed for the Cathedral of Montepulciano in 1401:
His raised halo says, "Santo Thadeus", Saint Thaddeus, and he holds his left ring finger with his righthand. He certainly tries to convey his five-o'clock shadow, scruffy mustache, and gives a local language code in his finger gestures (perhaps indicating he's a devout Christian); but within the code the three fingers pointing upwards toward his face make us look at him and recognize him as the artist of the triptych in the cathedral. He looks directly out at the viewer, and tries to make a connection with the audience, unlike Giotto. But because his face is so small in comparison with the saints in the wings of the altarpiece, the effect, though electrifying in miniature, allows his identity to get lost in the swirl of the greater vision of the Madonna being assumed into heaven:
Whatever the connection might be between these two, it is slight when considering the weight of influence that Masaccio's self-portrait had on generations of artists after him. Vasari says of him,e
"E quanto a la maniera buona delle pitture, a Masaccio massimamente, per aver egli prima di ogni altro fatto scortare i piedi nel piano, e cosí levato quella goffezza del fare le figure in punta di piedi, usata universalmente da tutti i pittori insino a quel tempo; et inoltre, per aver dato tanta vivezza e tanto rilievo alle sue pitture, che e' merita certamente non esserne manco riconosciuto che se e' fusse stato inventore della arte. Con ciò sia che le cose fatte innanzi a lui erano veramente dipinte e dipinture, ove le sue, a comparazione de' suoi concorrenti e di chi lo ha voluto imitare, molto piú si dimostrano vive e vere che contraffatte." (online Vasari, Le Vite)
His admiration of Masaccio stems from Masaccio's having invented foreshortening (scortare i piedi nel piano) (literally foreshorten feet in the plane)and for his ability to give "vivezza e tanto rilievo" (lifelike quality and sculptural relief quality) to his pictures. He recognizes that Masaccio differs from the painters before him because his paintings seem "vive e vere" (alive and real) and not artificially constructed (contraffatte).
Masaccio draws a mark in the sand (so to speak) in his paintings about St. Peter in the Brancacci Chapel 1424-27 in the Chiesa del Carmine in Florence for the reasons that Vasari enumerates, but he also makes an artistic statement on behalf of all artists in general by painting his own self-portrait into the Enthronement of Peter scene in the lower right register of the left wall of that chapel. Masaccio paints himself anachronistically as a witness to the Enthronement of Peter story, but he puts himself into a group of contemporary witnesses, some of whom include his friends, other artists: from left to right: Masolino, Masaccio, Alberti, and Brunelleschi.
Masaccio's face is the only one in the group that looks out at the viewer and directly engages the audience. As the painter of the scene and himself in it, he recognizes that he can document not just the scene but his own production of it by painting himself looking out of it. He places his self-portrait like a signature on a document, at the lower right of the painted wall, so that he can be a testamentary with his friends for the cycle as a whole. His decision to show himself looking out is partly influenced by his friend Alberti painted next to him since Alberti says in his Della Pittura that the painter should include a person who looks out at the spectator and draws him into the scene. For Masaccio that person is himself.
Masaccio is such a self-conscious artist here, he may have had an idea that he was producing an image that would have an influence on other artists, but he has an influence because he places himself on the wall in three historical moments: 1) the moment from ancient biblical history when Peter is adored by the King of Antioch for having raised his son from the dead, 2) the moment in which Masaccio has painted himself with his friends into the old story with contemporary 15th-century dress, as though they were standing around watching a play unfold next to them, and 3) the moment in which Masaccio looks out to any viewer in the future who comes to see his own creation and admire him for raising himself and his fellow artists from the dead. In fact, Alberti, whom he paints next to him, says in his book On Painting, "Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive." (Spencer transl.) Masaccio has resurrected himself and his friends from the dead in his image that lives even today.
Now it might be that if Masaccio had painted in Montepulciano or San Giovanni Valdarno that his artistic choice to paint a self-portrait that looks out from the wall would have had little or no effect on other artists. But he is painting in Florence, and the chapel he paints quickly becomes the place for artists to come for lessons in how to shape reality, how to copy nature. Vasari says of the chapel that "da infiniti disegnatori e maestri continuamente fino a 'l dí d'oggi è stata frequentata questa cappella." ("This chapel was continuously visited by infinite numbers of draughtsmen and masters of art even up until today." - my translation) Vasari also tells of Michelangelo drawing with fellow artists in the chapel when Michelangelo boasts of his own drawing to the other youth; one of them, Pietro Torrigiani, is so incensed by Michelangelo's boasting that he punches him in the nose, disfiguring him for life. While the documentation of Michelangelo's sparring is visible in later portraits of him, especially the bronze by Danielle da Volterra, the story of that sparring tells us that the chapel was a gathering place for artists and a classroom for painters learning how to draw. It was the locus for artistic influence. (Vasari even lists all the artists who learned from Masaccio.)
And Masaccio's influence on self-portraiture carried out by other artists was great indeed.
A short survey of 15th- and 16th- century painters who paint self-portraits into murals that postdate the Brancacci self-portrait:
Uccello's Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, 1435-40, Prato Cathedral (near Florence)faces us but does not look out to the viewer, but he is placed on the lowest right on the wall.
Fra Filippo Lippi, Barbadori Altarpiece, 1437:
Fra Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin, Uffizi, 1441In the Coronation he is also on the left kneeling, second in from front, looking impish:
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magi, 1459, Medici Chapel, Palazzo Medici, FlorenceIn this case Gozzoli is not able to put his features at the far right of the painting because the painting winds itself around the room on several walls, so he puts his self-portrait in the middle of the crowd of followers of the Medici family, whose portraits he has painted into other figures, and then he realizes that no one will know him in the crowd, so he paints his name on his hat (OPUS BENOTII - the work of Benozzo) so that his authorship is clear. He does look out at the viewer but not happily, perhaps because he knows Masaccio had not had to write his own name above his head to be recognized.
Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi, 1475, Santa Maria Novella (Florence - now in Uffizi)
Botticelli depicts himself on the right side of the panel, looks out at the viewer, and crooks his left arm under his cape. He understands the statement made by Masaccio and continues the tradition of "signature" on right.
Ghirlandaio, Resurrection of the Child, Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinita (Florence),1483-85
Ghirlandaio paints his "signature" to the right of the resurrection of the boy scene and he looks directly out at the viewer with left hand on hip, arm akimbo.
Ghirlandaio, Joachim's Expulsion from the Temple, 1485-90, Santa Maria Novella, Florence:
Ghirlandaio stands 2nd in from right at right side of scene, looks out at the viewer, points to himself with his right index finger and places left arm akimbo. The painting to the right of this in the cycle is the Birth of the Virgin and he cannot include himself in the far right scene there because it depicts the birthing chamber where men were excluded. Within the context of the Expulsion of Joachim scene, however, he stands to the far right.
Both Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are far enough removed from Masaccio's time to continue his message without feeling the need to rebel against him, as Fra Filippo Lippi does. They know that if they put themselves on the far right and paint themselves looking out, they will be recognized as the artist of the work.
Raphael's School of Athens, 1508-12, Vatican, Rome:
Raphael places himself looking out 2nd in from right in lower right corner of the wall.
By this point the tradition has been established for over eighty years and Raphael contributes his own features as signature in 1508-12 in line with Masaccio's choices in 1424-27. I will stop with Raphael, but the incomplete list gives the reader a sense of the importance of Masaccio's self-portrait in setting out the model to be followed by artists after him.
While the self-consciousness of artists certainly continues today, the need for them to paint their self-portraits at the edges of their painted scenes becomes less crucial than it seemed to be in the 15th and early 16th century. Many artists in the centuries after the 1400's, even artists in our time, paint themselves looking out at the viewer. Masaccio begins the interest in performing on the wall and establishes the place he thinks artists should record their features for posterity, at the right looking out. He makes such a strong statement, the artists in the century following him usually "sign on" to his choice in order to align themselves with artists or painters in particular as a group. By repeating the insignia in individual form, they link themselves to all painters. This in-group knows that their mentor has shown them a way of entering their own creations and recording their own features as a sign of pride in the work and as a sign that they are "signing" the work as a contract documentation of their own labor. In this regard they are often part of a group of men; since two witnesses were required to make a document legal, the artists include at least 2 witness figures next to their signature. They no longer paint themselves in a group facing the godhead, as in Giotto's day. By painting themselves looking out, they connect themselves eternally with the ever-changing audience for their works. They paint themselves into their creations in an attempt to thwart death and the passage of time. They live still on the walls or in the altarpieces, saving their artistry and faces for eternity.