Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Plume, 1638, National Museum of Wales

The term “self-portrait” is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon of art terms. In the 17th century, more discursive locutions were required. In a letter of 1630, the Scottish peer and writer, Robert Kerr (the Earl of Ancram) described an etched self-portrait by Rembrandt, which he gave to his patron, King Charles I, as

The picture done by Rembrant. Being his owne picture & done by himself.

This somewhat laborious description distinguishes between the image as a portrait of Rembrandt and the image as an etching by Rembrandt. Pausing to make these distinctions explicit may be pedantic, but the more concise modern term, self-portrait, collapses the two aspects of the transaction—a picture of me/a picture by me—a bit too quickly into one.

Similarly, in letters to Chantelou concerning an image of himself requested by his patron written in 1649, Poussin refers to

le portrait que vous désiriés de moi,

which reads both as “the portrait of me that you wanted” and as “the portrait by me that you wanted.”

Self-portrait 1649

Nicolas Poussin, Autoportrait, 1650, Paris, Louvre

Chantelou, in fact, wanted a portrait of Poussin; who painted it was not important, so long as it was accurate. The portrait of the artist he received happened to have been painted by the same artist.

As one would expect of a portrait painted in the period, Poussin is identified by inscription in the third person and shown seated among the attributes of his profession, but not in the act of painting. He has recorded his subject’s likeness; he has not represented himself in the act of representing himself.

He has painted a picture of himself looking at a picture of himself.


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