You might think that there isn’t much to be said about the self-portrait beyond the fact that’s it’s the artist’s view of themselves and, from earlier ages, often the only image we have.
There is, however, considerable social context and, if the artist worked on other portraits, an insight into how they saw their sitters both as figures and human beings.
Any painting is, necessarily, a reflection of its times and the authors here give consideration to how these works, all by British-based artists, reflect their own era. Robert Home, for example, appears in The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Lieutenant General Cornwallis (1792). It’s a large work of Imperial greatness in which the artist appears at one side, portfolio under his arm to identify him. He doesn’t look over-impressed and you can’t help wondering whether, despite taking the undoubtedly lucrative commission, he wasn’t entirely happy with the scene.
A similar mood continues on the next page, which shows us Pieter Christoffel Wonder’s Study for Patrons and Lovers of Art. Here, three men, who exude solidity and connoisseurship, are examining a work in what we can assume is the artist’s studio (the painting is unhung, unlike others depicted). A classical bust emphasises the seriousness of the scene. From behind one of the patrons, a figure, a palette indicating that he is the artist, leans out and looks straight at the viewer. His expression is best described as sardonic and the message is hard to interpret as anything but “they may be wealthy and I may depend on them, but they know nothing”.
The works cover the years between 1722 and 2022 and it is instructive to see how attitudes have changed yet remained the same. Stanley Spencer’s view of himself is more than a little mocking, Rachel McLean’s a caricature and there is frequent irony across the ages. The one thing none of them do is aggrandise, which is worthy of note in itself.
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