Read an excerpt from the July/August American Artist feature on still-life artist Emphraim Rubenstein.
by William Chapman Sharpe
|Self-portrait With Vanitas Symbols
by David Bailly, 1651, oil, 25½ x 38?. Collection Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden, the Netherlands.
Thinking of his own relationship to books, Rubenstein says, “Any object can be as much of a portrait as a human face.” In fact, the first Dutch still lifes emerged from portraiture. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Hans Memling and Barthel Bruyn the Elder painted skulls on the back of portraits, forecasting the grisly future of their sitters’ flesh. The first floral still lifes were also painted on reverse sides of portraits, emphasizing the fleeting quality of earthly beauty. By the mid-1600s most of the now-familiar types of still life had appeared as “stand-alone” subjects, including a food-filled table, musical instruments, and books or other objects for study. But nearly all offered clues, such as a fallen petal or a peeled fruit, that hinted at the brevity of the human pleasures memorialized on canvas.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian Renaissance painter well known for his fruit-composed faces, dealt with the still-life portrait idea literally. In The Librarian Arcimboldo comically showed how books can make a man. Weighty tomes make up his bulk; bookmarks form fingers and hair; the feathers of a book-duster compose his beard.
The portrait/still life can also mix the two genres, a tactic that also harks back to 17th-century Dutch painting. David Bailly’s Self-portrait With Vanitas Symbols presents the artist’s own image amid typical still-life items: books, statues, a pocket watch, and a just-extinguished candle. However, the 67-year-old artist has depicted himself as a young man, while the portrait he holds represents him as he looked in 1651, when he actually painted the picture. On one side, completing a series of oval shapes that spread across the canvas, is a skull. The picture thus shows us the past, present, and future of the artist’s body. Bailly reveals the painter’s life as a still life, a life that has already been stilled (by art) and will soon be stilled forever (by death). But in Rubenstein’s Self-portrait With Books we see a book-filled life that is not so much fleeting as still being forged: the book-piles show how much the young artist must master in the course of his growth.
To read more features like this, check out the July/August 2007 issue of American Artist.