I Paint, Therefore I Am:
On Painting, Patrons, and the Rise of Liberalism

← Narcissus in Bloom

Understood in the most general terms as representations of ourselves, self-portraits are among the oldest art there is. The Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Argentina, for instance, contains dozens of stencilled handprints that are almost 10,000 years old, and artists have been using themselves as models or tools for their paintings ever since

But the owners of the hands in that Argentinian cave would hardly recognise the selves depicted in the portraits of the modern era. Indeed, there is no “self” as such represented on that wall. What we see is a group, a collective, a community. The “self” of a self-portrait, on the contrary, is something quite specific.

Philosophically speaking, the “self” is an abstract and heuristic concept for our experience of ourselves as individuals. Despite what we might now assume, we have not always thought of ourselves in this way. That we have forgotten our old senses of self is telling, however. The “self” is such a powerful and intoxicating concept that it overrides and manipulates all forms of self-understanding that came before it. But it is only by understanding this shift that we can appreciate the revolutionary stature of the self-portrait when it first emerged before us.

The Delphic motto “know thyself”, for example, is one of the oldest and most enduring sentiments expressed within Western thought. Discussed repeatedly by Plato, in no less than six of his dialogues, it served as a cultural touchstone long before even he put it on the page. But back then, to “know thyself” typically meant to know one’s place in the general order of things. It was a move away from individuation, as a source of ignorance and as a product of fear and isolation.

We can see this position adopted in other examples of ancient Western culture as well. Consider Sophocles’ most famous Theban play, Oedipus Rex, which was first performed in 429 BC, during the same decade it is estimated Plato was born in. Despite its age, the story of Oedipus has retained a considerable if anachronistic influence over modern conceptions of the self, ever since it was utilised by Sigmund Freud as one of the founding allegories of psychoanalysis. For Freud, the Oedipus Complex was his term for that strange and fraught process of self-definition, when we come to appreciate, often through tantrums of inchoate sexual jealousy, that we are ourselves distinct beings and are in competition with others for our mothers’ attentions.

However, although we interpret it very differently today, Oedipus’s quest is hardly a story of self-discovery and individuation. Initially, there is little question, in Oedipus’s mind at least, of who he is as an individual; at the beginning of the play, he could not be surer of this. His true self is only uncovered when he fully understands his relations to those around him. The secret to be uncovered is, instead, who his mother and father are. It is not Oedipus’s true self but his true place in the social order that has been obscured from him.

Later philosophical conceptions of the self differed from this considerably, even though they often retained an interest in this ancient source material, as Freud’s particular reading of Oedipus Rex already suggests. Even Plato’s discussions of “knowing thyself”, often mentioned in the context of governance and statecraft, were later used to legitimate the authority of liberal governments in Renaissance Europe, inverting the tale of Sophocles’ doomed king to suggest that the self is not be so easily reconstructed from our social relations.

Though it is, of course, influenced by those around us, the self is essentially our understanding of those characteristics that are innate to us alone. It is what is left of us when we strip back everything else that is otherwise shared. Intriguingly, this understanding of the self is only slightly younger than the self-portrait as an artform; both of which came into common parlance and practice towards the end of the Middle Ages. 

For philosophers and political theorists at that time, the difference between the individual self and a collective subject was a novel but important distinction to make. It was Rene Descartes, writing in the 1630s, who first insisted upon such a distinction for philosophy. In his influential Discourse on Method, an autobiographical treatise on the very nature of thought and reason, Descartes hoped to provide a new methodology for separating truth from falsehood.[1] To do this, he stripped back everything that, he believed, could not be trusted. Approaching reality with a radical doubt, he began to pretend “that everything that had ever entered my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams.”[2] This included information gathered by the senses and just about everything else that came into the mind from the outside world. When all of this was discounted, Descartes was left with one thing – that is, the “thing” that thinks. “I noticed that, during the time I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it was necessary that I, who thought thus, be something.”[3] I think, therefore I am was his resulting declaration, and with that he established the self “as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.”[4]

This foundation was soon extended into other areas of thought as well. The politics of liberalism were also formalised at this time, for example, and were similarly built on a new conception of individual liberty and rights – the self as a first principle for politics also. A few decades after the publication of Discourse on Method, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke echoes Descartes’ philosophical position, writing that the “Self is that conscious thinking thing … which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.”[5] This Cartesian foundation nonetheless responds to certain political ideals. It turns out that, for Locke, this consciousness can extend quite far indeed, depending on your social status. In fact, by Locke’s measure, not every living thing was “conscious” of itself in the same way. As a result, though much of his work pays lip service to universal freedoms to be enjoy by all individuals, this was not always true in practice, especially by today’s standards.

Locke argues that the word person – his supposedly “forensic term” for the self – “belongs only to intelligent agents capable of a law, and happiness and misery.”[6] To be a person, then, echoing Descartes, is to possess a form of consciousness that can reason with itself; that can reflexively ascertain itself as conscious. But, in Locke’s hands, this was not the same sentiment as “I think, therefore I am.” Locke instead positioned the self as a reflexive being that thinks in accordance with reason. Rather than the reflexive self being a foundation upon which reason can take place, the cart is put before the horse. The self doesn’t just reason – it is fundamentally reasonable.

Some of Locke’s resulting conclusions are relatively innocuous. Under his criteria, an animal is not a person, for example, because animals do not have laws or experience emotions in the same way that humans do. (Something we are only more recently starting to challenge.) But neither, in Locke’s view, do supposedly uncivilised persons, whose rights do not warrant the same respect as persons from more “reasonable” societies. This suggestion was very influential, and particularly disastrous given Locke’s political influence over the colonisation of North America – an influence that can be seen explicitly in historical studies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, during which the emotions of slaves transported to the New World, clearly expressing trauma and grief, were ignored, denounced, or simply not perceived.[7]

The political impact of Locke’s “self” did not stop there, however. With a little help from Thomas Hobbes and his 1651 work Leviathan, “the self” also became a term for a kind of individual sovereignty, analogous to that of “the nation-state”. Self-knowledge was less defined by what we could be most sure of, as in Descartes’ formulation, and more by what we can claim possession of – whether that be the mind or the land underneath our feet. In this context, Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was soon extended into the realm of governance and property rights, making “I own, therefore I am” a more accurate founding doctrine for the politics of classical liberalism, settler-colonialism and, a few centuries later, neoliberal capitalism as well.

Whether in theory or in practice, it was already clear to many that “the self” was not the best foundation for a new era of thought and commerce. As such, Cartesianism, liberalism, and their legacies continue to be challenged by philosophers and political theorists to this day. However, given the ever-peculiar experience of being a conscious subject, Cartesian doubt remains an attractive starting point for many. Geopolitically, it continues to inform settler-colonial projects like the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example.[8] Pop-culturally, Descartes’ questioning of the existence of a mind-independent can be found in everything from Nineties Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix to a 2020 hit single by pop star Billie Eilish.

And yet, despite this persistent influence, Descartes’ supposedly novel conception of the self had already been subjected to considerable scrutiny in the arts by the time he wrote his Discourse on Method. In fact, the first self-portraits emerged around a century before Descartes’ birth, and by the time his thesis was published, the self had already been openly investigated, even mocked, as an unstable but nonetheless generative concern in various artistic movements.

What is particularly notable about these early self-portraits is that they were often knowing attempts to depict what Jacques Lacan would (much) later call the “ideal-I”.[9] This ideal is formulated during what Lacan calls “the mirror stage”, a process during which a child first adopts an external self-image, and therefore a mental representation of the “I”. But this “I” is often idealised, in that it is generally a stable mental conception. Our bodies are, of course, not stable, and so these ideals shift and adapt as we grow and age, but the mental conception of ourselves is forever out of reach.

Though Lacan would not theorise the mirror stage until the mid-twentieth century, it is a process analogous to the developments in self-perception that occurred during the European Renaissance, when artists began to consider themselves in an entirely new way. Their ideal selves, newly depicted on canvas, seldom corresponded to reality either, but this often did not matter. To depict an ideal and improve upon reality was instead seen as a virtue by many, as if to be able to paint something in a form more beautiful than nature was evidence of human exceptionalism and our capacity for self-transformation. This belief influenced a new Renaissance humanism whilst, for others, it demonstrated our direct connection to the divine. This attitude was as present in the self-portraits of the era as it was in Renaissance landscapes and still lives.

The most famous examples of an artist depicting their “ideal-I” can be found in the works of Albrecht Dürer, who produced some of the most notable self-portraits of the 1500s. Though there were self-portraits before his, no other artist produced so many. The writer John Berger went so far as to declare Dürer “the first painter to be obsessed by his own image.”[10]

Among his plethora of selfies, Dürer most famously painted an immensely handsome portrait of himself that was so popular it eventually went on display in the town hall of Nuremberg, Germany, where the artist was born, lived and eventually died. “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, painted myself thus, with undying colour, at the age of twenty-eight”, an inscription on the canvas reads. It is a painting layered with unsubtle symbolism and amusing strokes of self-aggrandisement. Not only does Dürer look like a classic depiction of Jesus Christ, his initials – a stylised “AD” – double up as both his signature and an allusion to the calendric label for those years following the birth of Christ: “Anno Domini”. Latin for “in the year of our lord”, it is unclear who “our lord” is supposed to be – Christ or Dürer himself.

Looking at this portrait today, one might expect Dürer’s self-image to be deemed sacrilegious, and most modern descriptions of the painting do mock it for the artist’s exuberant pride in himself, but in the early 1500s people flocked from far and wide to see the painting after it was put on public display. It may well have reflected Dürer’s hyperinflated sense of self as a master painter, as if he was on a par with God regarding the beauty of his artistic creations, but audiences seemed to agree with him. In fact, as a result of his work’s popularity, people became as obsessed with the man as they were with his paintings. Art historian James Hall notes that Dürer’s cascading curls were so famous that “after his death in 1528 his admirers exhumed his body to take casts of his face and hands, and cut lockets of hair.”[11]

However, beyond these tales of early celebrity, John Berger proposes another, far more interesting reading of the artist’s self-obsessed body of work. He compares Dürer’s Christ-like image to an earlier self-portrait painted in 1498, in which Dürer looks no less regal but perhaps a little more anxious, like a young debutante entering society for the first time. Berger suggests there is “perhaps a slight over-emphasis on his being dressed up,” as if “the portrait half-confesses that Dürer is dressing up for a part, that he aspires to a new role.”[12] Having recently travelled to Italy to see the latest trends within Venetian painting, and having heard the latest ideas shared by Italy’s art critics, Dürer no doubt “came to realise for the first time how independent-minded and socially honoured painters could be.”[13]

Contrary to our modern interpretations of Dürer’s pride, Berger wonders if the young artist wasn’t so much a prima donna but instead the first to depict a new kind of self. He argues that modern viewers give too much credence to their “many complacent assumptions of continuity between his time and ours.” We should instead be humbler and acknowledge that understanding “Dürer historically is not the same thing as recognising his own experience.”[14]

Berger argues that Dürer saw himself as a new kind of European man and was consistently fascinated by the cosmopolitan figure reflected back at him. Indeed, he was one of the very first examples of a “Renaissance Man”, newly aware of the potentials of his own will.[15] “When he looked at himself in the mirror he was always fascinated by the possible selves he saw there”, Berger writes.[16]

Though only beginning to emerge in the portrait from 1498, this is perhaps even more true of his Christ-like appearance in the self-portrait he painted two years later. Berger argues that it could not have been the painter’s intention to be blasphemous; he was a devout Roman Catholic, even after Martin Luther instigated the Reformation in 1517.[17] This makes the painting aspirational rather than self-aggrandising. “The picture cannot be saying: ‘I see myself as Christ’”, Berger argues. “It must be saying: ‘I aspire through the suffering I know to the imitation of Christ.’”[18] If Dürer was so self-obsessed, it was as a true narcissist. He hoped, more than anything, to be transformed.

Though one of the first, Dürer was far from the last artist to see himself in this way. His beautiful self-portrait is exemplary of a growing trend across Europe at that time, when artists were depicting themselves as notable members of society, rather than hired hands serving their rich and famous patrons. As a result, self-portraits took on an aura akin to contemporary headshots of famous actors and celebrities, and their grandiosity served a similar professional purpose as well. They were like all-in-one business cards or curriculum vitae, containing everything a curious patron might want to know about a person. First and foremost, they presented the viewer with both the artist and their skills, but they also occasionally advertised an individual’s social circle, as well as their personal interests and possessions.

In Italy, where self-portraits were especially popular, there developed a trend for artists to paint group portraits of themselves amongst various figures from high society – an early example of a professional portfolio, perhaps, or an antecedent to that Instagram staple, the group selfie, showing off your friends in their hottest outfits before you all hit the town. Less a depiction of a group identity, these paintings were made specifically to boost the social standing of the individual painter, who usually occupied a central panel whilst surrounded by studies of his famous friends. It was the beginning of a transitory period, where the social subject, as a member of a community, was transformed into a social self, with a person’s popularity and friendships being adopted as an individual virtue.

The uneasy or exaggerated forms through which these representations of self were manifest have never really gone away, but this is not a sign of their stability as aesthetic forms. Though they may have tried to adopt an ideal-I, the artists of the Renaissance did not eventually settle into stable identities. Ideal selves remained out of reach for the individuals concerned – although Dürer’s self-portraits were clearly adopted by others, coming to represent him in the popular imagination. For others, the gulf between self and self-portrait both narrowed and expanded. Allegorical self-portraits soon became popular, with artists inserting themselves into imagined scenes, but the psychological depth of such paintings provided further insight into an artist’s experience of themselves as an individual. Such an experience was not always positive. Soon enough, what began as sincere self-aggrandisement slipped into irony and irreverence, not to mention self-critique and self-deprecation.

Working almost a century after Dürer’s rise to fame, Caravaggio was easily the most infamous provocateur of the Italian Renaissance. His depictions of the self are evidence enough of this fact. Though he produced self-portraits in which he looks very handsome indeed, he was not partial to depicting himself as one of the rich and famous, like so many of his peers. All too familiar with the values and expectations of his patrons, particularly the Catholic Church, Caravaggio instead devised bold new ways to subvert them. These subversions did not go unnoticed. Unlike Dürer, his paintings were deemed sacrilegious acts, and his various controversies are well-documented.

These include hiring sex workers as models when painting commissions of the Virgin Mary and depicting the dirty soles of saints’ feet. But more interesting than his controversies are his self-portraits, in which he depicted himself in several surprising and even unflattering roles. Whereas Dürer hoped to be Christ reborn, Caravaggio saw himself as the devil incarnate. But his self-portraits were not demonstrations of a kind of pantomime showmanship, playing the villain for shock value and infamy; his unconventional selfies were often sincere and complex attempts at self-critique, even when dripping in irreverence.

In the very last years of his life, Caravaggio used his own likeness to paint the severed head of the giant Goliath, mouth agape and eyes bulging, with blood spurting from his ragged neck. In the original Bible tale, Goliath is a giant Philistine threatening the Israelites on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He is confident in his ability to squish all opponents who might try and challenge him, and so he goads the Israelites into sending forth a champion to duel him. A young shepherd, David, approaches the giant with a slingshot and some stones. To everyone’s surprise, David manages to knock Goliath unconscious with his ranged attack, before quickly chopping off his head. It is a tale today synonymous with upset wins, when unlikely underdogs bring down well-established opponents. Though it may not have held the same idiomatic associations as it does today, could we interpret Caravaggio’s depiction of David’s victory, with the painter casting himself as the dead giant, to be an expression of his own careerist insecurities? Caravaggio would die in 1610 and so the painting was one of his last works. Was he afraid some young new talent would knock him from his pedestal? Unfortunately, it seems that Caravaggio’s fears for his own head were far more literal. Indeed, many of his later works take beheadings as their subject matter, and each seems to express either a fear for his life or painterly pleas for mercy.

Caravaggio was in exile for much of his final decade. His reputation for fighting, insolence, and petty crime made him a target for both criminals and law enforcement alike. But his reputation was ruined utterly when, in 1606, he killed a man named Ranuccio Tommasoni. One story goes that Caravaggio and Tommasoni had bet on a game of tennis and disagreed on the outcome. Another version of the tale suggests that Caravaggio was jealous over Tommasoni’s relationship with Fillide Melandroni, a local sex worker who had modelled for Caravaggio on several occasions – most famously as Judith in yet another gory painting of an assassination, Judith Beheading Holofernes. Papers released by the Vatican in 2002 seem to confirm the latter tale.[19] Whatever the true source of their disagreement, the pair decided to settle their differences by having a duel. Caravaggio won that duel and attempted to castrate his opponent as punishment. Tommasoni died from his injuries.

Caravaggio had not intended to kill his rival and the fallout from the botched duel was complex. The painter’s life was turned upside down; he went on the run, travelling the length and breadth of Italy, and even spending time in Sicily and Malta. Whilst in exile, he painted himself as Goliath, but this was not the only painting to predict the painter’s imminent demise. He also painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, a painting in which the severed head once again looks like Caravaggio himself; Salome also resembles his former mistress, Fillide. The painting was presented to Fra Alof de Wignacourt, the Grand Master of an order of Maltese knights, as a gesture of goodwill. Having fled to Malta, he was later driven off the island, either because news of his crimes had reached the Maltese noblemen, or because Caravaggio still couldn’t behave himself and once again ended up on the wrong side of the law. No doubt already exhausted and tired of life as a fugitive, in repeatedly offering up his head on a painted platter, Caravaggio longed for mercy. He didn’t get it.[20]

Caravaggio’s self-depiction as Goliath is just one example of his work’s psychological and reflexive depth. Less graphic but no less self-destructive, he also painted himself as Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and fertility, as well as madness and the festival; otherwise known in Greek mythology as Dionysus. Rather than a jovial character, Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus wears a queasy grimace and green skin. He is holding a bunch of grapes, as if ready to keep eating, but resembles a drunk at a party who has had one too many and should really start thinking about going home. Against his own better judgement, he is instead trying to keep up appearances. It is, in many respects, a subversion of Bacchus’s character. Whereas Narcissus may be associated with a kind of self-intoxication, the drunken Bacchus is instead a figure of social abandon. Those who follow him are freed from an otherwise suffocating self-consciousness. However, in Caravaggio’s hands, this Dionysian spirit is less clear cut. Inverting the narcissism of a self-portrait, Bacchus’s detachment from the self is nonetheless depicted as its own kind of sickness. Though care-free and hedonistic, a glutton for pleasure, Bacchus is as grotesque as any of Caravaggio’s other portraits of mythological monsters.

Each of these paintings seems to tell us something about Caravaggio’s sense of his own position in Renaissance society. Rather than exercising the braggadocio of many of his more well-to-do peers, to paint himself as a vanquished giant or a sickly hedonist suggests his lifestyle wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Though none of these paintings can be labelled as “self-portraits” in a traditional sense, as allegorical paintings of the self they are arguably even more accurate depictions of Caravaggio’s self-understanding, in that they allude to an inner experience that the rest of the world was not privy to. Those elements that are most like or relevant to Caravaggio himself are hidden, obscured, or just symbolically alluded to. Though they may have been exploratory and reflexive for the man himself, as viewers of his paintings we are only made more aware of our distance from him – the mythologised painter with a bad reputation. It is as if, despite the fact he is wearing a series of masks, Caravaggio’s portrayals of others tell us something more compelling and less vainglorious about the person underneath than Dürer’s self-portraits ever could.

Caravaggio is also said to have painted a now-classic depiction of Narcissus. Some scholars dispute its authorship; it was first attributed to the painter as recently as the twentieth century. Most likely painted in the early 1600s, even if we were certain that this painting was produced by the Renaissance’s chief connoisseur of causes célèbres, it would remain unclear as to whether he used himself as a model or someone else. Regardless of its true authorship, as an unusual painting of Narcissus it still tells us a great deal about the time in which it was made.

The painting is eerily minimal; a striking example of the tenebroso style. Narcissus is enveloped in shadow and darkness, and we cannot see the world beyond him, only the kneeling figure and his gloomy reflection. Even the riverbank on which he sits seems dead and barren, as if the solitary hunter has become marooned on some terminal beach. If narcissism is an imbalance in the relationship between self and world, Caravaggio’s Narcissus has lost touch with the world altogether. Compositionally, his is a form totally in orbit of itself.

Though Narcissus may be that quintessentially (if extremely) reflexive subject today, for Caravaggio this reflexivity may have had another purpose. As with his paintings of Goliath and Bacchus, with so little of the world around him on display it is the act of looking itself that is the focus on the painting, making it less a comment on the relationship between self and world and more an evocation of that divide between artist and audience.

This may have something to do with how Italian artists and writers understood the myth of Narcissus during the Renaissance. For Leon Battista Alberti, for instance – an influential humanist and notable friend of Dürer’s, who he met on a trip to lecture in Nuremberg – Narcissus was “the inventor of painting”. On the one hand, this may be a reference to the average artist’s self-concern; the thrill of having one’s work admired and loved is, of course, a euphoric and narcissistic high. But there is another interpretation here. It is as if, for Alberti, Narcissus’ fury at his own impotence, his inability to capture and possess the reflection that has so captivated him, a reflection of his own nature no less, is an allegorical retelling of the experience that first drove the human species to paint in the first place. “As the painting is in fact the flower of all the arts, thus the whole tale of Narcissus perfectly adapts to the topic itself”, he argues. Narcissus’ metamorphosis is, in this sense, the primal scene of art history. After all, what is it to paint, Alberti asks, “if not to catch with art that surface of the spring?”[21] The emergence of culture is Narcissus’ metamorphosis in reverse. As the flower is transformed into a transcendental object that we cannot know or possess, we attempt to remake it by our own hand.

This reading presupposes the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most famous critic of Cartesianism in the centuries that followed the Renaissance. In his Critique of Pure Reason, first published a century and a half after Discourse on Method, Kant refutes Descartes’ “material idealism”, which he defines as “the theory that declares the existence of objects in space outside us either to be merely doubtful and unprovable, or to be false and impossible.”[22] For Kant, there is a clear relationship between subject and object, and this is true enough of paintings themselves. Objects, Kant observes, affect us. We sense them, and these senses intuitively give rise to understanding. But to understand something intuitively is not the same as being in possession of some rigorized conceptualisation of human behaviour. There is an a posteriori understanding that comes directly from experience and not from reason or theoretical deduction. Nevertheless, it is an a priori understanding that we should be striving for – an understanding that arises from scientific reason and analysis, independent of our personal experiences. Kant argues that it is only through experiential understanding that “objects are thought, and from it arise concepts.”[23]

In the present context, Kant’s so-called “transcendental aesthetic” suggests that it was our thinking about the self-portrait as an object that eventually gives rise to the concept of “the self” – and the art-historical timeline certainly supports this reading. Contrary to Descartes’ self-mythologising account that the concept of the self was innate to his own mind, and therefore conjured without any influential from the outside world, Kant observes that, whilst we cannot fully know things in themselves – that is, beyond their perception by the human senses – they can nonetheless illicit responses in us that tell us about the world in which we live. Self-portraits, then, as expressions of a posteriori experience, provide the foundation on which to build an a priori account of “the self”.

Intriguingly, this renders Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus less a depiction of a reflexive subject than a reflexive object in its own right – a painting of the birth of painting. For art historian Susanna Berger, this makes Caravaggio’s Narcissus a “meta-image”. She suggests that, during the Renaissance, “such self-aware paintings could … thematize the potential fictiveness of visual experience” for the viewer, in the way that their content and structure echo the act of painting itself or, additionally, the very act of looking at a painting. “In visualizing acts of observation”, Berger argues that meta-images “turned gallery visitors into representations on display, an effect that would have made the spectators’ identification with Narcissus even closer.”[24] This is to say that paintings like Caravaggio’s Narcissus not only dramatize an artist’s own self-consciousness but raise that same consciousness in the viewer as well. Caravaggio may have been aware of this. Just as he lampooned the habits and values of his patrons on various other occasions, perhaps Narcissus was another knowing nod to our growing obsession with images. Just as the Catholic church betrayed its own narcissism in commissioning grand representations of its own mythology, so too did other patrons of the arts get off on the very act of looking at those objects that they owned.

In his final years, Caravaggio played up to this narcissism explicitly, hoping that, in painting his head on a platter and sending it to someone who could influence his future, he could sate the desires of those who wanted his actual head on a spike. The seeds that would eventually bloom into Locke’s liberalism begin to sprout – to “own” a Caravaggio was recognition from the artist that his noble patrons also “owned” the man himself. Whereas Dürer painted his own power, Caravaggio hoped to paint and flatter the power of others, including their power over him, forcing the viewer to reckon with their own cultural impact and influence. John Berger recognised this same tendency in Caravaggio’s oeuvre. If this Roman rebel was so arrested by self-hatred, routinely depicting his own precarity, perhaps that is because he had known the effects of living under this kind of power his whole life. As Berger writes, he was “the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the back-streets, les sans-culottes, the lumpenproletariat, the lower orders, those of the lower depths, the underworld.” Through first-hand experience, he could avoid “presenting scenes” and instead depict “seeing itself”, as through the eyes of the lower classes.[25] “He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one that he shares with it.”[26] But this does not result in a new era of artistic sympathy and representation. Just as King Oedipus found out the hard way, the Delphic motto to “know thyself” does not automatically equate with an ability to like thyself.

The rise of the self-portrait was fraught, in this regard. Though we have repeatedly emphasised the liberal worldview, and the self-portrait as the artistic depiction of our experience of ourselves as individuals, as a form of painterly encouragement to “know thyself”, our place in a wider social order is never far away. As such, though they lived a century apart, with very different styles and concerns, both Caravaggio and Dürer were two subjects newly aware of their power and the power of others, and how that power could be wielded, from within and without.



[1] Discourse on Method is the most common abbreviation of the full and unwieldly title of Descartes’ work, which is Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences.

[2] Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Mediations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993, 18.

[3] Ibid., 18-19.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Roger Woolhouse. London: Penguin Books, 1997, 307.

[6] Ibid., 312.

[7] […]

[8] At the time of writing, the state of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine and its ethnic cleansing of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem has recently led to a short but disastrous conflict, which led to the death of a dozen Israelis and over 200 Palestinians. The state of Israel is a perfect example of how liberal politics can lead to atrocities in the twenty-first century. For Zionists, the Israeli occupation of land is explicitly tied to their theological and ontological ideals. To be Jewish, they suggest, is to have a home in Israel. As a result, to challenge Israel’s “right to exist” as a nation-state is, for many, to challenge the right of Jews to exist as a people. National sovereignty is equated with individual sovereignty; politics and ontology are fatally entwined; ideology is hidden under a flawed understanding of the very basis of human consciousness and reason. Many critics of Zionism argue that this is a false equivalence – not a truth but a liberal ideal – and it is very possible to be Jewish without violently claiming ownership of contested land and property. It is telling that it took until 2021 for this view to go mainstream.

[9] […]

[10] John Berger, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, ed. Tom Overton. London and New York: Verso Books, 2017, 56.

[11] James Hall, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014, 85.

[12] Berger, Portraits, 58.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 57.

[15] Though best known as a painter, Dürer also wrote several books on mathematics and city planning, as well as an artistic treatise on perspective and bodily proportion.

[16] Berger, Portraits, 59.

[17] Following the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Martin Luther successfully orchestrated a split from the Roman Catholic Church, which he criticised for its political overreach and abuses of power. This included the church’s claims to absolve the sins of wealthy donors, in a kind of “cash for absolution” deal that Luther considered to be fundamentally corrupt and sacrilegious. Luther’s act of “protest” gave its name to the form of Christianity that developed in his wake: Protestantism. It also reasserted the sanctity of the individual in matters of faith. Arguing that contrition before Christ could not be bought and adjudicated by an institution, instead coming from within, Luther asserted that everyone is responsible for their own repentance on an individual basis. (We might expect this move to be attractive to Dürer, and research suggests he was politically sympathetic to his ideas, even wishing to draw Luther at one point, but it seems that he remained loyal to the Catholic church regardless.) Though useful when dealing with issues of corruption, this central Protestant sentiment was diluted and spread amongst the lower classes as well, providing the foundation for capitalist voluntarism and further allowing institutions of all forms, like employers, to relinquish responsibility for their workers.

[18] Berger, Portraits, 58.

[19] Catherine Milner, “’Red-blooded Caravaggio killed love rival in bungled castration attempt'”, The Telegraph, 02 June 2002: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/1396127/Red-blooded-Caravaggio-killed-love-rival-in-bungled-castration-attempt.html&gt;

[20] Caravaggio’s true cause of death has never been confirmed. Some believe he was assassinated by relatives of Tommasoni, or one of the Knights of Malta. This was certainly the dominant rumour at the time. But the painter did not die right away, and so it is thought that Caravaggio succumbed to sepsis after a wound sustained in a brawl became infected. Others believe his death was due to some other disease, like malaria or brucellosis. Recent archaeological investigations, following the examination of human remains believed to be Caravaggio’s, suggest that both his death and is erratic behaviour in life could be explained by lead poisoning, caused by lead salts commonly used in paint at that time. No matter how Caravaggio met his match, he died on the run, never having been forgiven for his crimes.

[21] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. Rocco Sinisgalli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 46.

[22] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996, 288-289.

[23] Ibid., 72-73.

[24] Susanna Berger, “Narcissus to Narcosis”, Art History, 43:3. London: Association for Art History, 2020.

[25] Berger, Portraits, 88.

[26] Ibid., 88-89.

Leave a Reply