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Portrait of the Artist–Exhibition at Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) by his pupil Francesco Melzi (c. 1491-1570). Possibly the only surviving reliable portrait of Da Vinci. Copyright image Frances Spiegel with permission from Royal Collection Trust. All  rights reserved.
Chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) by his pupil Francesco Melzi (c. 1491-1570). Possibly the only surviving reliable portrait of Da Vinci. Copyright image Frances Spiegel with permission from Royal Collection Trust. All rights reserved.

The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace presents Portrait of the Artist, the first-ever exhibition of portraits of artists in the Royal Collection.

Through more than 150 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative arts, Portrait of the Artist looks at how artists have depicted both themselves as self-portraits, and other artists.

The display, curated by Anna Reynolds, Lucy Peter and Martin Clayton, is set out thematically and explores themes such as the cult of the artistic personality, the artist at work and artists' self-portraits.

We see how, from the 16th century onwards, attitudes towards artists changed, as they rose to a higher social status rather than just being skilled artisans. This rise was partly influenced by royal patronage. Medieval artists' guides were replaced by workshops lead by a master and these were followed by the first art academies. As artists achieved recognition in society, the demand for portraits of those artists, especially those artists regarded as exceptional. In addition, many artists used self-portraiture to demonstrate their skills to potential customers.

Some of these portraits became exceedingly valuable items often acquired, or commissioned, by monarchs and other wealthy patrons. For example, Charles I's Surveyor of Pictures, in his inventory compiled in the late 1630s, lists self-portraits by Daniel Mytens (c.1630) and Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1623).

The 1666 inventory of Charles II's collection includes Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (c.1638–9), Rubens's self-portrait (1623) and portrait of his former assistant Anthony van Dyck (c.1627–8).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c.1638-9  Copyright image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. All rights reserved.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c.1638-9  Copyright image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. All rights reserved. | Source

The Self-Portrait

During the 17th century improvements in optics and the manufacture of mirrors allowed artists to become more adventurous and ambitious in their self-portraits.

Gentileschi captures herself from an unusual angle with the aid of two mirrors strategically placed. Holding a palette in one hand and a brush in the other, she shows herself as the female personification of Painting. Gentileschi was invited to London in 1638 by Charles I, and it is likely that she created this highly accomplished self-portrait during her visit.

The Artist at Work

Many artists have chosen to depict artists at work. For example, Austrian artist Eduard Jakob von Steinle (1810-1886) shows St Luke painting the Virgin and Child.

Early Christians believed St Luke the Evangelist painted an icon of the Virgin and Child and St Luke was adopted as the patron saint of artists.

Eduard Steinle was linked to the Nazarenes, a group of artists who sought to revive the techniques and subjects of medieval and early Renaissance artists.

Jakob von Steinle (1810-1886) shows St Luke painting the Virgin and Child. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel with Permission from The Royal Collection Trust. All rights reserved.
Jakob von Steinle (1810-1886) shows St Luke painting the Virgin and Child. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel with Permission from The Royal Collection Trust. All rights reserved.

Artists Playing a Role

It was very common for artists to incorporate their own image into their works. Using costumes, actions, props and settings, artists showed themselves in a variety of roles.

Frederick Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton of Stretton (1830-1896), places himself, as Cimabue, at the very centre of his monumental Madonna Carried in Procession (1855). Dressed in white, he leads his most famous pupil, Giotto, by the hand. The colourful crowd of revellers escorts a 13th-century altarpiece, the Rucellai Madonna, through the streets of Florence to the church of Santa Maria Novella. The exhibition tells us Leighton's work “encapsulates the Victorian artist's belief that, during the Renaissance, great art was appreciated at all levels of society and artists were held in high esteem, their genius widely acknowledged.”

Leighton produced this painting based on an account of the artist's life by the biographer Giorgio Vasari recorded in Delle vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori (1568).

Frederick Leighton places himself, as Cimabue, at the centre of his monumental Madonna Carried in Procession. Copyright image Frances Spiegel with permission from Royal Collection Trust. All rights reserved.
Frederick Leighton places himself, as Cimabue, at the centre of his monumental Madonna Carried in Procession. Copyright image Frances Spiegel with permission from Royal Collection Trust. All rights reserved.

Portrait of the Artist—Royal Collection Publication

The exhibition is accompanied by a new Royal Collection publication, the first to focus entirely on images of artists held in the Royal Collection. This fully illustrated book presents paintings, drawings, photographs and decorative arts by artists such as Rubens, Gentileschi, Melzi, Dürer, Reynolds, Freud and many others.

Portrait of the Artist can be seen at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from 4th November 2016 to 17th April 2017.

Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1

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