Picasso’s An Artist (1968)

Michael Fried in his recent book on Caravaggio had an important insight that we have discussed before in “Over-the-Shoulder Poses.” It may be worth reading that entry first. He argues that Renaissance and Baroque paintings with a single half-length figure reaching towards the edge of the image, as Picasso's artist does below, are often substitutes for the artist even though in Fried's examples they do not appear to be painters. He claims the actual artist is looking in a mirror set up at a right-angle to the easel. They then turn their head to look in the mirror (that is, out at us in the painting) to paint their portrait. What we then see in the painting is what the artist saw in the mirror

Fried's insight is totally convincing but he failed to see meaning in the form. In painting what they see in the mirror, the entire surface of the painting becomes a mirror which is an age-old metaphor for the mind. From St. Augustine onwards the creation of man in the image of God meant that the human mind was a vestige of the Trinity and that to see the image of God, the original imago Dei, human beings had to turn inwards to their own mind rather than out to the "real" world. In the Middle Ages man's mind was a mirror reflecting God. This meant, of course, that the mirror had to be positioned correctly, kept clean and pure, in order to see God clearly.1

Picasso knew much of this from art alone and demonstrated it in image after image.  Here is a late portrait of an artist facing his easel yet instead of turning his head to look in the mirror (and out at us), only his eye does so even though the eyelashes face left. The lower eye is real; the other his mind's eye, further evidence that we are looking in a mirror.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, An Artist (Portrait of Degas?), (6 Feb. 1968)

Click image to enlarge.

We have shown before that the entire surface of Velazquez’s Las Meninas and Manet’s Olympia are mirrors. And once we know that paintings like these are reflections, the visual discrepancies in them which are always present resolve themselves as they do here in Picasso’s painting. The eyes face outwards not as a meaningless element of design but to look in the mirror. 

It is worth mentioning in this respect that the artist's paintbrush is formed like the P of Picasso' signature, a straight line with a circle on top. Thus, even though Picasso's artist has a concave nose and is thought to represent Degas, it is Degas as Picasso, one great master reincarnated in another, an idea that Picasso's friends said he strongly believed in.2


See explanations of other works by Pablo Picasso.


1. Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak, "Replica: Images of Identity and the Identity of Images in Prescholastic France" in The Mind's Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages, eds. J.F. Hamburger and A-M Bouché (Princeton University Press) 2006, p. 50

2. André Malraux, Picasso’s Mask (Henry Holt) 1976, p. 143

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 06 Mar 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.