THE TERM SELF-PORTRAIT, which first appears in the early 19th century, participates in the Romantic cult of the self, narcissism and interiority. The assumption that the act of self-representation is always already personal and subjective distorts 19th and 20th century criticism about self-portraiture.
PORTRAIRE. v. a. Tirer la ressemblance, la figure , la représentation d’une personne au naturel, avec le pinceau, le crayon. &c.Portraire au vif, au naturel, il s’est fait portraire. II vieillit & ne se dit qu’à l’infinitif.
PORTRAIT, s. m. v. Image, ressemblance d’une personne, par le moyen du pinceau, du burin, du crayon, &c. Beau portrait, portrait au naturel, portrait en grand, en petit. faire un portrait, portrait resssemblant, qui ne ressemble point.
La Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise, 1694).
According to this period definition, the purpose of portraiture, and the standard by which it is judged, is ressemblance. What that concept meant to a 17th-century viewer, emerges from a study of self-portraits by Alexandre-François Desportes (French, 1661-1743) and Pierre Mignard (French, 1612-1695).
TO GAIN ADMISSION to the Académie royale in 1699, Desportes submitted a picture of himself dressed for the hunt, with hounds and recently bagged game arrayed before him. Hunting scenes and trophies, his intended generic concentration with the academy, required an aptitude in still-life composition and an ability to render fur, feathers, and lustrous fabrics, which the picture more than demonstrates. In situations where the artist wished to have special control and/or constant access to a model, he or she could serve as the model, as Desportes did for his morceau de réception. The fact that the resulting picture included a portrait of the man who painted the picture, however, is secondary and third to the picture’s purpose.
While there academy judges may have noted the degree to which the image captured the likeness of the sitter, the degree to which a 17th-century viewer would have considered Desportes’ self-image to be a portrait at all is debatable. In a culture where the default is the portrait d’apparat, an effigy-like genre which represents the external, public, official self through surfaces, outward signs, and attributes, can a picture showing a person dressed in a manner unlike his normal attire, situated in a fictive location, engaged in an aristocratic pastime of which he had no experience—be thought of as ressemblant?
Despite these facts, the picture hangs today in the Louvre, its modern title, Autoportrait à la chasseur, implying the picture is au fond a schizophrenic act of self-representation as someone completely other.
MIGNARD’S PICTURE OF 1670, on the other hand, is an act of pure portraiture, by 17th-century standards. The picture is a visual statement of the sitter’s official self, including his rank, profession and comportment, which are announced almost allegorically by means of attributes, objects, materials and possessions. Mignard locates his profession in the worlds of learning, judgement and intellect by showing himself surrounded by classical sculpture, theoretical texts and a geometer’s tools, not by picturing himself standing in front of an easel with a palette. This is not an attempt to convince the viewer that painting is a liberal art and not a form of manual labor—his portrait clients, who were obliged to participate in the process, were all aware of the labor the job involved. In its emphases, the picture accurately portrays the official, period conception of the nature of painting, indicating the underlying qualities and capacities that inform and enable its practice. It is a representation of the idea of painting, which, as an erudite abstraction, requires articulation; it is not a representation of the material realization of that idea, which everyone can see for themselves. In this way, Mignard’s picture of himself is très ressemblant.
The fact that he (one assumes) accurately represented his own features is, as it was with Desportes, not worth remarking—it would be like praising a mechanic for starting the car. The picture depicts Mignard as the representative as a class of persons, whose collective behavior is representative of a way of conceptualizing the world. It is utterly impersonal, and obtains for that reason.