Portrait of The Artist at The Royal Collection

Belphoebe New

This exhibition from the Royal Collection brings the artist out from behind the canvas, revealing the nature of creative genius through the ages.

We are used to artists picking a muse or a subject to paint or photograph, but as this varied, characterful and enjoyable exhibition from The Royal Collection shows us, the way that artists present themselves on the canvas can offer us an incredible insight into their lives, passions and the relationship with their own work.
The exhibition covers a wide variety of portraits from 1460 to the present day, beginning with the self portrait and moving through to considering the cult of the artist. In the first room we see the artist’s depiction of themselves, with pieces by artists such as David Hockney and Lucian Freud acting as an insight into the reality of their own self perception. Lucian Freud’s own painting Reflection was his first ever self portrait at the age of 74, using a combination of harsh shadowing and stark lighting to create long dark lines across his face. In other cases, we see a romanticisation of the artist, such as the 1730 painting An Idealised Self-Portrait as a Young Man by Giovanni Battista Piazetta, where at the age of 50 Piazzetta imagines himself as a handsome young peasant. Each portrait in this room points to different reasons for expressing the self through painting, whether it is to be remembered in the future, to enhance their own prestige and accomplishments or to act as an introspective study of their features.

Lucian Freud, Self-Portrait: Reflection, 1996 Royal Collection Trust, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

In a bid to express themself, it is no surprise that the artist would choose to show themself at work, creating a direct study of the subject of art itself and the nature of how it is produced. From the Renaissance onwards artists began to acknowledge themselves within self portraits, not just focusing on the easel and brush but also including themselves within a wider studio environment. The standout paintings here are by Johan Zoffany, who created epic images from inside artists’ studios such as the chaotic The Academians of The Royal Academy which references the artistic process, including the models that symbolise drawing from life and the sculptures and statues that signify the act of learning from anatomical observation. Zoffany himself sits at the side of the painting holding his palette, by no means at centre stage but quietly overseeing events. Centuries later we see a photograph of Lucian Freud painting the queen, such an instantly recognisable and iconic figure that we rarely see her share the canvas with someone else. This theme points to interesting questions about the nature of authorship and the artist’s desire to quite literally pervade their own work, directly affecting and changing the narrative of artistic development.

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Veering away from the idea of painting and expressing the true self, the last room explores the idea of the artist playing a role within a portrait, with allegorical and symbolic significance. A centerpiece of the exhibition is Francesco Melzi’s likeness of Da Vinci, which sits alongside one of Da Vinci’s self portraits and shows the extent to which Melzi’s style was inspired by Da Vinci’s, to the point that they look like two of Da Vinci’s paintings side by side. There are also examples of artists painting themselves into mythical and biblical stories, such as the boldly graphic Judith with the Head of Holofernes, which is said to hyperbolically indicate the tempestuous relationship between the artist Cristofano Allori and his lover. From the fiercely bold to the incredibly subtle, Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten’s still life initially appears to show a selection of objects including a skull, books and jewelry, but if you look closely you see his reflection in an object, painting the still life we see in front of us. In this section we see that the artist can integrate themself into their work, indicating their own personal and artistic struggle in a variety of subtle and creative ways.

Attributed to Francesco Melzi, Leonardo da Vinci, c.1515, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Covering such an enormous time span, this exhibition is successful in tying together the idea of the portrait of the artist through a number of central themes. Despite focusing on the figure of the artist it interestingly does not focus on the biography of each one, instead considering how artistic developments through the ages, from the early recording of the self to the cult of artist celebrity, have influenced the desire to bring the artist out from behind the canvas. Currently we live in a time when the artist can often be much more famous than their work, and far from being a new phenomenon, this exhibition shows that the artist has always been curious and experimental when painting and depicting the self.

Portrait of The Artist runs from 4 November to 17 April 2017. Tickets are £10.30 with concessions available. Find out more here.

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