Gemini Self-Portraits: If Pictures Spoke…

Wednesday June 15th 2011

Yes – three of the artists do look as if they are just about to speak to us down the centuries. That is what you’d expect from a Gemini Sun. But I’m not sure any of them are going to say anything too complimentary. More along the lines of – well – I’ll leave that up to your imagination.

Frankly, moody is the word that comes to mind when I look at these people.

The thing that always strikes me about this intense self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is just how modern he looks. I can imagine running into him at the check out in my local supermarket (dressed in leather).  Look at how beautifully he’s drawn his hand.

Albrecht Dürer, aged 28.

And speaking of intense hands, here’s Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) having a bit of a moment. You can just imagine him staying up late and looking in the mirror. I think it has some of the neurotic energy of a true air sign freak-out.

Courbet did loads of self-portraits. One gets the feeling that whenever he couldn’t find a subject he painted himself. This is certainly his funniest.

Maybe he’s depicting his mad inner twin – that’s a character all Geminis are familiar with. That’s the anarchic, mischievous part of your nature which sometimes just has to be unleashed and allowed to run around for a while. Some of us with a touch of the Geminis have to learn the hard way to do the unleashing in a rather calculating fashion – timing is everything. This picture is also called the Desperate Man.

Gustave Courbet wrote this many years after painting this picture: “I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.'”

These days he’d probably get the label Outsider Artist hung around his neck; back in the 1850s they liked to call him a Realist.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) also did a lot of self-portraits and here he is looking at himself very beadily. Like Durer, he’s painted his own right hand, which leads me to ask if he was left-handed or ambidextrous. Mercury, Gemini’s ruler, is deft and dexterous.

Gauguin too was famously anarchic – he was pretty much self-taught and before he decided to devote himself to painting full-time he was a stockbroker – for years. He only became a full-time painter when the stockmarket crashed in 1883. Transiting Uranus in Virgo was opposing his natal Pisces Saturn, squaring his Gemini Sun and sextiling natal Jupiter. Effectively, the transiting planet of revolution broke up that mutable Sun-Saturn square.

Paul Gauguin.

Eventually, he abandoned his family (five children and a divorce) and took himself off to Tahiti to live more “naturally”. Apparently, he was rather irascible at the best of times, and by the end of his (short) life he was truly a grumpy old man. It’s all in the picture.

And here in another person who had to leave home to become who she was meant to be. Now I have to confess I’m disappointed with this one, because I think Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) is a wonderful painter. I’ve looked for a better self-portrait but clearly she had no need to paint her mirrored self. Interesting.

Like Courbet and Gauguin, she found herself when she stopped painting conventionally, which she certainly had the technique to do well and joined the Salon des Refusés in 1879 – with revolutionary tr Uranus in the 7th squaring her Sun (identity) and her Midheaven (public face). Transiting Uranus can often be a sign of funky people coming into your life and when Uranus went into her seventh house of relationships, she met the painter Edgar Degas, who changed the whole direction of her career, freeing her to create in the way that was right for her.

Cassatt’s self-portrait.
Degas’ portrait of Cassat

This self-portrait is weird because she is not looking at herself. She looks away. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’d used a photograph. It’s a pretty quick sketch but you can see that deft and confident brushtroke on her dress – and what’s more her subtle use of  colour in the background. To give you a greater feel of her perky personality I’ve included this affectionate portrait by Edgar Degas (Cancer) with whom she had a lifelong friendship. Interestingly, she appears to be holding photographs in the picture. Degas was passionate about the new way of seeing – photography.

Finally, one more maverick. Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), like Gauguin, had two jobs. His day job was in the customs office, which he eventually gave up to become an artist full time. Rousseau was never much appreciated by fellow artists in his own lifetime, but his influence cascaded down the generations. There are a few qualities that you can see in this portrait which are both Geminian and very him.

Every Rousseau painting seems to be telling a story; a story you might not quite know but it’s on the edges of your mind, somewhere just beyond. And that makes your imagination stretch out to catch the tail end of a tale.

His painting was criticized as childish and naive – well, it was and is – and so what? Childish naivete is just the ticket on a rainy afternoon in June.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    You should study more art history.

    Durer “looks modern” because he helped establish most of the perspective drawing conventions that artists use in portraiture even today.

    Corubet WAS an outsider artist, “realism” (not in the sense of realistic draftsmanship, in the sense of “real life”) was considered outsider art and not accepted by mainstream artists.

    Cassatt pretty much always painted exactly the same way, she never changed. What you are assuming are works in a new, different style are just less-finished works, studies or “oil sketches.”

    Rousseau has very little influence, that would be impossible. You can’t be influenced to paint naively. You’re either a naif or not.

    And what can you say about Gaugin, except that he represents all the lowest Gemini traits: amorality, dishonesty, flakiness, and heartlessness. Still, he was a hell of a painter.

  2. Christina says:

    Oh dear anonymous – I guess I really annoyed you. I do know my art history quite well actually; that is why I choose to write about art regularly – so I thought I’d answer each of your points.

    What’s wrong with saying Durer looks modern? He does, right down to the funky hair do. I think you’ll find quite a few artists who knew a thing of two about perpective did not end up creating self-portraits that feel like this – oo Rembrandt say or Van Dyck.

    The subtlety of what I said about Courbet seems to have escaped you. “Outsider Art” is a label used about contemporary art now. As you’re doubtless aware it’s rather fashionable at the moment. There was no such label in the 1850s, so I was making a little joke. Perhaps overly nuanced.

    Rousseau – no influence? Really? I’ll simply refer you to this article in the Guardian describing his influence on Picasso, a reasonably important 20th century artist I think you’ll agree.

    As for Mary Cassatt, I think if you take the time to look at her work carefully – I don’t mean on line but in the gallery – you will see that the influence of Degas in particular is wonderfully liberating. Are you suggesting that all her work after 1877 is unfinished? I don’t think you are.

    Nuff said – except to point out that this post is a distillation of knowledge gained over a long period.

  3. Andy says:

    I love Mary Cassatt – and I completely agree that her work changes a lot when she meets Degas. If you want to see the difference – and you can’t afford the plane ticket – look at her work on the Art Institute of Chicago website.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You know, I have a degree in Art History, and I am intimately acquainted with the Cassatt works at the Art Institute, I have been visiting there for decades. And I assure you Cassatt only had one major stylistic change, when she discovered ukiyo-e. But that stylistic change is only visible in her printmaking. And yes, I am saying that her later works were less finished. In any case, she was a secondary Impressionist for a reason, and not because she was a woman.

    As to the other points, it is ridiculous to say Durer’s works look “modern” since that term is basically meaningless. When I was an undergrad, our Modern Art classes covered the years 1750 through 1900. Perhaps you meant he looks “Contemporary.” The familiarity of his “look” is the result of the ubiquity of Durer’s drawing techniques. even into the contemporary era.

    Perhaps the subtlety of my remarks about Courbet escaped you. Again, it is inappropriate to apply contemporary terminology to works created a hundred or more years before those terms existed.

    As far as Rousseau, he is a mere footnote in the canon of Art History. If you want to attach more significance to him than is due, then you are no art historian.

  5. Christina says:

    @Andy – yes it’s the brushwork, isn’t it.

    @ anonymous – I think you’re being very rude and dare I say it, blinkered. I hope that instead of just fuming at your computer, you’re inspired to go and have another look at Cassatt and think again.

    Ditto with Durer – look and you might see the biker I see glaring out of that painting.

    Rousseau – his weird images are imprinted on the imaginations of most westerners (and a lot of easterners) whether they know it or not. More people probably recognise his painting of the lady in the jungle than know Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon – that is influence..

    I guess you didn’t bother to follow the link I left you.

    This site is about opening your mind and your eyes; it’s about making connections across time – not about regurgitating received ideas.

    If you don’t like the way I see the world, there are plenty of other places to go…

  6. Alan says:

    Christina – I really enjoyed this piece, thanks for the insights.

    Anonymous: you’re a bully. And by staying anonymous, you’re a coward too!

    Great. You have a degree in art history. But it doesn’t mean that your take – which is only, after all, your OPINION – is the gospel truth, or the only way of seeing things.

    Astrology and art (and life itself) are best approached with an open mind rather from behind a wall of received ideas. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” – Shakespeare

  7. Christina says:

    Thanks Alan – I was feeling a bit hounded.

  8. P says:

    A troll on your fair site, Christina – Ay!

    Go away, undergrad troll, and leave us and our ‘uneducated’ opinions alone. If we’re not the place for you, go somewhere else! Simple!

  9. Diane says:

    Anonymous: Arrogant much?

  10. Dee says:

    I guess one of the reason this person has identified his/herself as “Anonymous” is that he/she is a pompous ass. Good riddance!

    Oh, and Christina I love your insights. Thanks for sharing

  11. Adela says:

    Ouch! Clearly someone needs to extradite large foreign object from saids inner workings. Must be a youngster.


    What an astute observation of Mary Cassatt’s self-portrait. Yes, indeed, the Mid to late nineteenth century painters used photography to render their self-portraits. Witness Bougereau. Even the lighting is different because they weren’t painting by torch or candlelight so their depiction/rendering of light changed as well. I too am an Art Historian/painter.

    So glad I found your website. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Keep up the good work!