Several years ago I was inspired to paint a self-portrait. It wasn't the first or the last time I took it upon myself to try to capture my persona on canvas. What marked this particular attempt as unique was the fact that I didn't reach for a mirror or a recent photo of myself as tools to facilitate this aim. Instead, I decided to try combining my two primary painting interests - portraits and still lifes. As different as these two types of painting are, I wasn't the first artist to move in this direction. I might have done as the Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo did in 1536 by putting together a kind of vegetable effigy as in his Summer in which he concocted a fascinating, if somewhat comical, profile portrait of one of his patrons using all manner of fruit, vegetables, and grains to help him capture a likeness. The back of the head is a head of cabbage; his ears are small ears of unhusked corn; his peachy cheek, a peach; his cherry-red lips, cherries; his teeth, peas; his hair, leaves and grassy grains. Let's hope his patron was a vegetarian...and one with a sense of humour.
Rather than produce a produce portrait, I chose, instead, to try to capture, not my physical likeness, but the essence of who I was as an artist through those personal items I used on a daily basis. I thoughtfully collected them and laid them out on the paint-smeared drawing table I used to hold my palette. I included my college ID card, some painting tools, tubes of paint, a photo from which I'd recently rendered a painting, and various other items of a personal nature in a careful, though informal, still-life arrangement which I then photographed looking straight down upon it from above to create a kind of tromp l'oeil montage type composition. From the resulting photo, I painted my still-life-portrait. I had intended it to be the first in a series to be painted over a period of years that would trace my development as an artist and my evolution as a maturing individual far more insightfully than any mere rendering of my physical characteristics. But my plan was thwarted by a particularly astute patron who offered me a surprisingly generous sum for my effort - an offer I couldn't refuse. I suppose I could have repainted the work from the same photo for my own archives but by that time I'd lost interest and moved on. The series never went any further than the back of my mind where it remains today.
The Dutch painter Samuel van Hoogstraten may have been the first to do such a still-life portrait in 1667 with his Trompe l'oeil Still Life Pinboard. The painting depicts a painted frame encompassing a solid black surface across which are pinned two bright red ribbons holding in place a varied assortment of papers, combs, coins, and other objects highlighting his achievements as an artist and author of two books. The overall work is also, of course, a celebration of his skill as an artist in creating convincing illusions. Less illusionist, but no less emblematic, is Vincent van Gogh's 1888 The Chair in which he depicts his favourite wickered seat situated near a wall in his room. The floor is a simple, rustic tile. The wall is his favourite "van Gogh" green while on the seat of the chair rests his pipe and tobacco, which suggests his presence nearby. The work is as touching and warm as any of his many self-portraits without the pathos that marks his depictions of his physical likeness.
Going as far back as 1633, the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, the leading religious artist of his time and place, chose to paint a portrait of the Virgin Mary. His brilliantly lit Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose, like van Hoogstraten's, van Gogh's, and my own, does not present a facial image. His mother of Christ instead relies on the various then-familiar symbols of her being - a rose, her floral symbol; a cup of water, her purity; a plate of lemons, emblems of faith; a basket of oranges along with a sprig of orange blossoms, the symbol of virginity - all arranged on a simple dark, altar-like table. The painting, with its similarly simple, dark background, is carefully composed in such a manner as to appear to be three separate still lifes, emblematic of the trinity. Today, it's merely a pretty (if somewhat disjointed) still life. But at the time of its rendering, the religious significance of each item and the compositional purity the artist invoked would not have been lost in the translation of these symbolic elements from portraiture to still life.
In the light of traditional portraiture, still lifes would seem to fall short. Without some overt tie to a specific individual in the form of a title or signature, or subtle likeness of some sort, even the familiar symbols of the Virgin Mary are eventually lost in time. That's certainly the case with van Hoogstraten's work and I'm sure the same is (or will be) true of my own effort. And, had van Gogh not become the art icon he is, his solitary chair would have suffered a similar fate. But does a painted face survive the forgetfulness of time any better? Certainly van Gogh's have, and Rembrandt's; but, by the same token, art history and art museums the world over are full of excellent portraits of anonymous individuals, not to mention those of people whose names are known but about whom little else is recalled. A still-life portrait might not be quite so anonymous.