Category Archives: 17th century


The taste for highly-illusionistic pictures of tables heaped with inert/inanimate, often costly objects overlaid with dour moralizations could only have originated in the Netherlands.

The Calvinist rejection of religious imagery had coincided with the rise of capitalism and colonialism, resulting in an expanding middle class faced with greatly reduced options for art consumption. The increased demand for images was filled by the rapid development of the secular genres of landscape, portraiture and still life, the latter inviting the viewer to a meditation on materialism.

Along with the genre, the term still life originates in the Low Countries in the early 17th century. Karel van Mander describes Netherlandish pictures of flowers as stilleven in Het Schilder-Boeck (1604) and in 1622, Constantijn Huygens refers to pictures by Jacobus Torrentius and Jacques de Gheyn as inanimatis, a latinization of the vernacular term.



Antoine Coypel (1661-1722) was the son of the painter, Noël Coypel, and the father of a painter, Charles-Antoine Coypel. Trianed by his father, with whom he spent four years in Rome studying art, Antoine was elected to the Académie Royale at the age of 18.

Like his hero, Peter Paul Rubens, Coypel was the artist-courtier par excellence. He was appointed director of the academy in 1714, was named Premier Peintre du Roi in 1716 and elevated to the minor nobility in 1717. He received high-profile commissions from the king (the ceiling painting of for the chapel at Versailles); his brother, the Grand Dauphin (the Cupid and Psyche series of 1700); and the Duc d’Orléans ( the Aeneid mural cycle for the at the Palais Royal). While director of the academy, Coypel edited and published the Discours prononcés dans les conferences de 1’Academie royale de Peinture, a collection of lectures on single pictures in the royal collection presented by academy artists to their colleagues.

Carefully educated in both art and the classics, Coypel was an exemplary history painter, as erudite as he was technically skilled. His real talent, however, was for drawing. With Rubens and Annibale Carracci as his models, Coypel combined Flemish freshness and immediacy with Roman monumentality to create presentation drawings the are intimate and grand at the same time. His blue-ground and trois-crayons chalk drawings were highly-prized by collectors in his lifetime.

In recognition of his virtuosity, Coypel served as the first keeper of the royal drawing collection from 1711-19. An passionate collector himself, Coypel owned over 100 drawings by the Carracci in addition to works by many other Renissance and 17th-century draughtsmen. He bequeathed his collection to his son, Charles-Antoine, who, after an equally successful academic career, willed the drawings to the monarchy in 1752, 280 of which entered the Louvre collections after the revolution.


Diego Velàzquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Madrid, Museo del Prado.
Le brun Jabach
Charles Le Brun, Everhard Jabach and His Family, c.1650, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1666, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Self-portraiture involves copying the image of oneself reflected in a mirror on to a canvas standing on an easel. This was the process Poussin, Mignard and Desportes employed. Velàzquez and Le Brun used the same technique to incorporate images of themselves in the act of painting both their own portrait and those of their patrons into Las Meninas (1656) and the Jabach Family Portrait (c. 1650) even though those pictures are not (primarily) self-portraits.

To complicate an already complicated pictorial mise-en-scène, one must note that Velàzquez had to have had a mirror positioned in front of him, adjacent to the large canvas, which is not to be confused with the fictive canvas seen in the painting, on which he recorded both his own features and the royal party arrayed in front of him. At the same time, he had to represent a similar set up showing himself before the fictive portrait of the king and queen, whose images we only see reflected in the mirror at the back of the room (it is useful to know that in a period when mirrors were very expensive commodities, Velàzquez owned 10). Velàzquez painted a portrait of the Infanta that includes a portrait of himself in the act of painting a fictive portrait of the king and queen. His appears only in the actual picture; in the imaginary portrait only the king and queen, and none of the other characters, would have been depicted.

Le Brun sets himself a equally vertiginous task in the family portrait. Velàzquez depicts himself in the actual painting at work on another painting. Le Brun shows himself painting the painting he stood before, at which we look. To get himself in the picture, he depicts himself as a reflection in a mirror hanging behind the sitters. To do this, he, too, had to have had a mirror placed near his canvas, from which he copied his features on to the fictive mirror of the painting, thus creating not a mise-en-abîme, but a representation of one.

As was the case in Las Meninas, we cannot see what is on the fictive canvas represented in the actual painting, just the painter. In Le Brun’s case we might assume that the imagined family portrait on which the artist reflected in the mirror is working is identical to the actual portrait, but it, in fact, given the reversal of mirror images and the angle from which Le Brun shows himself viewing the family and the fictive painting, and the angle from which he had to have been viewing the actual painting, the unseen fictive portrait of the Jabach family could not have resembled the actual one in anyway. He has, in effect, painted the same portrait twice, in two different ways, in the same canvas, whereas Velàzquez represented two separate portraits. Both artist therefore surprised their patrons with not one, but two portraits.

Vermeer turns his back to the viewer, but shows us the canvas on which he works, which appears to be the painting we see before in a very early state. We know from documents that Vermeer owned a 16th-century Burgundian costume and we recognize the studio as his by its contents which he includes in other paintings This means the painter seen in the picture is Vermeer, whose identity is proclaimed by his art and the by place in his house where it was painted , not by his facial features. By the terms of the period definition, this is a picture of Vermeer, but not a portrait of Vermeer. This is a self-portrait of an indirect kind.

Poisson and Le Brun painted their own portraits at the request of a client who wished to have a record of his outward appearance. The fact that Vermeer d not record his own features and the fact that The Art of Painting was in his studio at the time of death suggests that he made it for hismelf.


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.

DISEGNO IV: Annibale Carracci

In 1582, Bolognese cousins and painters Agostino, Annibale and Ludovico Carracci founded an artist’s studio called the Accademia degli Incamminati (roughly, the Progressive Academy). As the seat of the oldest university in Europe, Bologna was an academic town, and the ambitious Carracci school, which included history, anatomy, natural science and classical art, taught by Agostino, with practical painting and drawing lessons provided by Annibale, fit right in. The liberal arts curriculum offered aspiring painters with an alternative to a purely artisanal apprenticeship in a established painter’s workshop.

The Carracci disapproval of the artificiality and stylization of Mannerism and support for the Council of Trent’s reform of religious images informed every aspect of the academy’s pedagogy. Those concerns were addressed by an emphasis on the direct study and initiation of nature, the human body and classical sculpture, all of which was achieved through drawing. Annibale, one of the greatest draughtsman of the long Italian Renaissance, encouraged students to work outside the studio, drawing landscapes and nature studies directly, and to draw the human body from live models.

Within a very short period of time, the highly-successful Incamminati attracted promising young artists from Bologna, including Guido Reni, Domenichino and Lanfranco. When Annibale and Agostino were called to Rome to fresco the palace, designed by Michelangelo, of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese in 1595, they brought their students with them to work as assistant, leaving Ludovico behind to supervise family business. The academy ceased operations at this point, its personnel and principles having been transferred from Bologna to Rome.

The spectacular reception of the Palazzo Farnese frescoes in 1600, for which Annibale composed hundreds of preparatory drawings, catapulted the Bolognese artists to highest levels of artistic renown and patronage. Their success was such that the straightforward, naturalistic, Counter-Reformation values of a quirky, provincial art school effectively became the universally-admired and imitated Roman Baroque.




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.

SEEN, BUT NOT OBSERVED: Jacob van Ruisdael

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Thirty years ago UC Berkeley art historian Svetlana Alpers published The Art of Describing, which is a study of the 17th-century Dutch way of seeing the world; a study of the art a culture possessed of that visual epistemology produces; and a study of the (inadequate) art historical methodologies that had been brought to bear thus far on that art representing that epistemology.

Alpers argues at the local level that the approach of Dutch art historians, which relied on emblem books to decode hidden moral meanings in Dutch art was not only often wrong, but unintellectual, while at the global level, she challenged the prevailing iconographical methodology, claiming it had been developed for the study of Italian Renaissance art, where it worked (when practiced by scholars such as Panofsky) because Italian art was textually-based, but had been extended to the study of northern art, where it did not work.

All of the above was merely an introduction to The Art of Describing, the main goal of which was construct a framework for understanding Dutch art, that was derived from indigenous Northern visual and artistic practices, conventions and skills. That indigenous Dutch way of visually construing the world, according to Alpers, involved description (rather than rhetoric), empiricism (not classicism or idealism), mapping and surveying (as opposed to inventing), and other visual practices, particular to the Protestant, Dutch republic at the time of the advent of capitalism.

The genre of landscape painting, with its interests in topography, recording and plotting, plays an central role in The Art of Describing and pictures by Jacob van Ruisdael (1626-82) support Alpers’ thesis. Surveyed from above, the landscape seen in View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields, (c. 1670) resembles a map, which correctly charts relative distances while at the same time, it provides an empirically-observed record of topographical features.

Ruisdael was a prolific artist, his studio producing over 700 known paintings and 100 drawings in his lifetime and, naturally, emphases and interests fluctuate within this large body of work over time. Later in his career, Ruisdael continued to work in an objective, descriptive mode, but gradually shifted over to a more subjective, imaginative, and inventive mode. Many of the visual tropes associated with Romanticism appear routinely in the later Ruisdael—ruined buildings, abandoned cemeteries, stormy weather, blasted trees, torrential waters, castles and even sublime mountain peaks. Pictures with tiny single figures, facing away from the viewer and gazing at primeval landscapes could be by Caspar David Friedrich.

Ruisdael never traveled far from the Low Countries, which had no mountains or waterfalls to describe; nevertheless, these rugged, dramatic landscapes were the result of on-site, observation—done by another artist. Amsterdam painter Allart van Everdingen visited Scandinavia in 1644 and made a number of drawings of rocky mountainous scenes with torrents and waterfalls, from which other artists, including Ruisdael, borrowed motifs to create views of topographies they had never seen (A Norwegian River Landscape with Waterfall, c. 1665). Ruisdael also created detailed images of ruined buildings (Ruins in a Dune Landscape, probably 1650-5), the individual bricks of which are discernible and from which ground plans could be made, that never existed.

This is not to say, however that Ruisdael is a fraud, cutting empirical corners and making convincing fakes. Ruisdael invented and composed landscapes may have been a response to the changing tastes of the art-buying public and/or necessitated by the increased demand for for his work which meant less time out in the field and more composing from memory and models.

On a less material level, Ruisdael’s fictive landscapes do not contradict Alpers’ theory. His use of another artist’s visual record of a place is not unlike citing an authoritative work in a written argument—a drawing’s informational value is not diminished by reproducing it. Furthermore, Ruisdael’s use of another artists testimonial could be seen as observing description, and insofar as his work draws on visual rather than textual sources, Ruisdael’s seeming exception actually confirms Alpers’ thesis, which holds that works of art were accepted as visual information as much as maps and diagrams and a practical, rather than (Italian) decorative, function.