When I think of artists before the 20th century, I imagine them confined to their own little towns or cities. It never crossed my mind that some of these famous painters might have met each other, and in some cases have even been friends. This foolish misconception of mine was especially true in the case of van Gogh. The image I had of Vincent van Gogh is this tortured and lonely artist whose sole friend was his brother Theo. I only recently found out that van Gogh and the artist Paul Gauguin were friends. And the reason I found this out was because of a painting Gauguin had made of Vincent.
This made me curious to find other paintings like it. And there are many. We sometimes forget that historical figures like these famous artists were ordinary people with exceptional talent who led pretty ordinary lives. In all likelihood, they had very little notion of how famous and enduring their works would become.
These painting of famous artists by famous artists are very interesting as they give us an insight not only into the skills of the person making the painting, but also what they thought of and felt for their subject. Let’s take a look at some of these works:
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885) by John Singer Sargent
Sargent met Monet in 1876. This painting was made nearly a decade later when Claude Monet sat at the edge of the woods near his house in Giverny. It is believed that the piece that Monet is working on in this painting is Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny. At the time that this was made, Sargent was already an experienced painter with an established style. While Sargent was a traditionalist, he still recognised the beauty of Monet’s Impressionism. He greatly admired his use of colours and you can see how he tried to imbue some of that in this painting as well as in other paintings such as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.
John Singer Sargent liked to make portraits of his friends and gift it to them, but he never did so with this piece. In fact, this painting along with other of Monet’s works were in Sargent’s studio when he died, which says a lot about their friendship.
One of the tenets of Impressionism was to paint directly from nature, which Monet can be seen doing here. His partner Alice Hoschedé sits behind him. Sargent admired Monet’s style of working outdoors, and imitated him with this work.
An Artist in His Studio (1904) by John Singer Sargent
This artwork follows a similar theme in that it shows an artist engrossed in his work. The subject in this painting is the Italian artist Ambrogio Raffele. Raffele was a landscape and figurative artist. He and Sargent shared a similar style of painting.
An Artist in His Studio shows Raffele in his work space at Purtud in the Val d’Aosta, Italy, in the summer of 1903. You will notice that Raffele is not at the centre of this painting, but to the side. The rumpled sheets take up a lot of the composition. It was believed that Sargent enjoyed the challenge of painting white on white canvas, and he clearly seemed to have mastered this skill here. The London Times made the same observation, writing: “Surely, never were tumbled white sheets so painted before”.
The Painter of Sunflowers or Le Peintre de Tournesols (1888) by Paul Gauguin
Unlike with a lot of paintings across history, we have a pretty good idea of what the artist was feeling at the time of making this painting. This portrait was made when Gauguin, who was already a friend of van Gogh, visited him in Arles, France. This trip was made on van Gogh’s insistence, with his brother Theo van Gogh even funding Gauguin’s trip.
Sadly, this visit did not have a happy ending. Both Gauguin and van Gogh had strong personalities (to put it lightly), and they were often at each other’s throat. Gauguin made this portrait after a quarrel with his friend and housemate, and his anger is clearly visible in how he has depicted him. From van Gogh’s own self-portrait we know that he did not look like he does in this painting. The Painter of Sunflowers shows him with a flattened nose and sunken eyes.
While Gauguin’s relationship with van Gogh was tempestuous, he greatly admired his friend’s work especially his Sunflowers series. At the time of this portrait being painted, van Gogh had already finished working on Sunflowers. That Gauguin decided to include this painting in this portrait indicates his high regard for the work. Indeed, Gauguin ended up owning three of the Sunflowers paintings, and once described them as “perfect page of an essential ‘Vincent’ style.” Gauguin’s love for these paintings is very clearly seen in the way he has placed the Sunflowers at the centre of The Painter of Sunflowers, in place of where the human subject would usually sit in a traditional portrait.
At the end of his time in Arles, Gauguin gifted this painting to Theo van Gogh inspite of himself admitting that the portrait bared very little likeness to its subject. When Vincent van Gogh saw it, he said, “It’s me, but it’s me gone mad.” He eventually changed his opinion of it saying, “My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.”
The Painter of Sunflowers can be viewed at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Staircase Group (1795) by Charles Willson Peale
This is a portrait of Peale’s sons Raphaelle and Titian, when they were 21 and 15 respectively. Raphaelle Peale later became the first professional American painter of still-life, while Titian became an ornithologist, entomologist, photographer, explorer and illustrator.
When viewed in person, this portrait can be deceiving. The painting is surrounded by a wooden doorframe, and a real step projects from the bottom of the frame. When mounted on a wall, you could easily mistake it for a real staircase with real people.
“On an unusually large canvas, he made one of his rare full-length portraits, showing two of his sons on an enclosed spiral staircase. Its high degree of detail and finish shows that the painting was clearly intended to be a trompe l’oeil “deception,” an effect that Peale never attempted elsewhere. To enhance the illusion, he installed the painting within a doorframe in his studio, with a real step in front. Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father’s friend George Washington, misled by Peale’s artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by.”-Darrel Sewell, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995)
An interesting detail in this painting is the piece of paper that looks like it has been dropped on one of the steps. A closer look shows this to be a ticket to Peale’s Museum in Pennsylvania.
Hubert Robert (1788) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Élisabeth Lousie Vigée Le Brun was French artist who primarily worked on portraits of nobility. Her art was supported by Marie Antoinette, but she had to flee France during the Revolution. In her lifetime, she painted 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.
Her portrait of the French painter Hubert Robert shows him holding a palette and paintbrushes in his hand while looking towards his left.
While we know little of how Robert and Le Brun knew each other, Robert– himself a prisoner during the Revolution– was one of the first to welcome Le Brun back to Paris after her exile.
Joseph Vernet (1778) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Joseph Vernet was a French landscape and marine painter who also happened to be Le Brun’s mentor. He encouraged her to “paint as much as you can from nature.” Le Brun was only 23 when Vernet sat down for this portrait.
Portrait of the Painter Claude Monet (1875) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
In this painting, Renoir gives us a casual portrait of Monet. Monet has a relaxed stance, and he’s wearing his painting clothes. It is like a snapshot of Monet in the middle of a conversation with his friend.
The branch of an oleander tree extends over the subject’s head. The leaves along with his circular hat reminds one of a laurel wreath and halo. While it might seem like we are reading too much into this painting, we should also remember that Renoir was an accomplished artist and did not make composition choices lightly.
Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (1559) by Sofonisba Anguissola
Sofonisba Anguissola was a Renaissance painter. This artwork is a mise-en-abyme i.e. a painting within a painting. The subject of this painting is Bernardino Campi– Angvuissola’s first art teacher. She would later study under Michelangelo.
While Campi is the subject of this painting, Anguissola has painted herself with a rather unique detail. Did you notice that she has two left arms in the painting? One of those arms appears to merge with Campi’s hand– the hand holding the brush, in fact. What was Anguissola trying to say with this detail? Perhaps she meant to convey that she was the original artist of the painting Campi was working on. There are many interpretations to this.
“Sofonisba shows herself as vague, un-idealized, sketchily conceived, and her master in fine detail, though it is also her hand that has rendered this face. This is very amusing, although we’re not privy to the actual meaning of the joke. Or does Anguissola have a more serious intention? Is the female artist, probably under cultural pressure, playing down her ability as an artist in a self-deprecating way?”Arthur.io
If you want to learn more about Sofonisba Anguissola, check out our previous post about Renaissance Women.
Did these paintings change the way you look at these famous artists? Let us know in the comments!