Near the end of Vincent, Theo and the Fox, the young Vincent van Gogh thinks about what he might become when he grows up. When he thinks about becoming a painter, he thinks about easels. It turns out that lots of artists use easels in their self-portraits. What do these paintings mean?
“And [Vincent] thought about what it would mean to be a painter. He thought about standing at an easel in a studio. Then he thought about carrying an easel and paint to capture the landscapes he and Theo had seen.”
Vincent, Theo and the Fox is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings (including the two above). Some readers want to know more about the paintings so, on Mondays, I blog about one or more of them.
One of Vincent van Gogh’s more famous self-portraits (above left) is from 1888 and shows him standing at an easel. Paul Cezanne adopted a very similar pose in an 1885 self-portrait, as did Camille Corot in 1825, Peder Severin Kroyer in 1902 and Marc Chagall in 1914.
Some artists get quite imaginative with their easel-involved self portraits. As far back as 1605, Annibale Carracci painted his self portrait as if it were an unfinished painting propped on an easel (perhaps, as art critic Laura Cumming points out, to symbolize that he is like all men a work in progress). More recently, Norman Rockwell gave the genre a wonderful twist with his Triple Self-Portrait (which emphasizes the importance of the mirror to self-portraiture).
But why include an easel in a self-portrait? Is it the same as a stonemason, say, posing with a mallet and chisel (or the picture of me posing with a laptop above my bio)? Tools of the trade are important and there can be an aspect of advertising involved in artist self-portraits. A self-portrait shows the skill of an artist. A potential patron can compare the artist to her self-portrait and decide whether or not to commission a work. But there is, I think, more significance than that in both the idea of easels and self-portraits themselves.
The history of easel paintings is interesting. The website essentialvermeer.com gives some insight. The word “easel” comes from the Dutch word, ezel, meaning donkey. Around 1600, the word started to be used in its secondary sense of a stand used to support paintings. Easels, as stands, have probably been around since the ancient Egyptians. But, until the 13th century, paintings tended to be large: murals and wall-paintings. After the 13th century, there was growing public interest in acquiring art. Meeting that desire required smaller paintings, namely ones that could be done on an easel. Ever since, easel paintings have become the typical form of modern painting. Being highly transportable, easel paintings were easy to buy and sell, easel painting facilitated the growth of the art market.
Basically, easel paintings are an embodiment of a mind switch in the art world. Painting became secular. Fine art was no longer just for chapels and castle walls. Easel paintings were objects of worth in their own right. Also, an easel, with its freedom from a fixed location, makes a subtle assertion of the independence of the art of painting and the profession of painter.
But, with or without easels, self-portraits are often gripping to see. They are the artist’s answer to the eternal question, “Who am I?” The author of A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming, points out:
“Self-portraits make artists present as the embodiment of their art; it sounds so neat and succinct. But they often do so only to ask who or what this person is who is looking back from the mirror, how dismaying it is to be alone, how hard it is to represent or even just to be oneself.
Van Gogh had the courage to look in the mirror numerous times, painting 41 self portraits. Vincent–and all the other artists who have done serial self-portraits–make me think of Michael Jackson’s wonderful hit, “Man in the Mirror.” Here is a YouTube tribute by the person who wrote the song for (and performed it with) Jackson, Siedah Garrett.
– Ted Macaluso
Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10). He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.
Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included. Uses affiliate links.