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Self-portrait of a young artist

Self-portrait of a young artist


French school

c. 1790-1800

Oil on canvas

47.7 x 59.1 cm (canvas), 57.5 x 69 cm (frame)

Higher res images available on request

France in the 1790s was an exciting place to be a young artist. In the fervour of Revolution, the stranglehold of the Academie de Peinture et Sculpture on patronage, exhibiting and teaching came under attack, until it was abolished in August 1793 by the revolutionary National Convention. From 1793 to 1797, exhibitions at the prestigious annual Salons were open to all comers. Artists such as Louis-Léopold Boilly and Adelaïde Labille-Guillard turned from painting portraits of the aristocracy to capturing the faces of the rising bourgeoisie. For a young artist just beginning his career, it was a time of freedom and possibility. This self-portrait of an unknown young artist captures a sense of that possibility as he embarks upon his career in a newly-forged society full of dangers and opportunities.


The artist in our portrait turns to consider his reflection, his arm slightly raised to the canvas (notably, his left). The mirror is evidently propped slightly below eye level, creating a slightly haughty expression as he looks slightly down onto the viewer. Self-portraits have often been considered as an exploration of the artist’s psyche, but more often than not they were an essential part of an artist’s development and training. One’s own self was always available to model, free of charge. Painting his or her self portrait allowed the artist to experiment with different techniques and effects.


An artist’s earliest self-portraits were also a declaration of intent. What kind of artist would they be? Who were their influences? This self-portrait recalls Louis-Léopold Boilly’s self-portraits made in 1793 ( Self-portrait, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille; Self-portrait as a sans-culotte, private collection). It also references the self-portrait tradition of the Italian Renaissance, most notably Giorgione’s Self-portrait as David (1508-10, Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum), the engraving of which was appended to his entry in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. It suggests the artist followed an academic training, perhaps in the studio of one of Paris’ well-known artists.


The reverse of this painting may hold the clue to the identity of the unknown artist. There are many notes, added at different times in different hands, but one word recurs three times: Moulin. Was Moulin the young artist? I have found no record of an artist of this name, of the right age, working in France in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but if you would like to take on the challenge, I wish you every success!

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