Musée d'Orsay: Léon Spilliaert Self Portrait

Léon Spilliaert
Self Portrait

Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946)
Pencil, black and brown ink, pen and brush
H. 27.4; W. 27.2 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Thierry Le Mage

Portrait de l'artiste par lui-même [Self Portrait]

Between 1902 and 1909, Spilliaert concentrated on the theme of self portraits. Although his first attempt in 1902 showed a studied almost academic realism, he quickly involved towards more complex and more penetrating introspection.

n this 1903 drawing, Spilliaert uses a dramatic composition with ghostly apparitions in the background. The tormented face and shadowy gaze is dramatised by the three-quarter pose which hides part of the face.

Spilliaert shows himself dressed in a sober, elegant city suit not an artist's smock. He thus asserts his awareness of his intellectual and social status.
The apparitions in the shadow are not different masks of the same elusive, terrifying identity as in James Ensor's work, but rather mirror images. The top face clearly represents Spilliaert, perhaps younger. The lower face could be a projection of Spilliaert's older self which would transform the composition into an allegory of the ages of life.

The entire left side of the sheet has been rubbed out. A few traces of pencil marks and a sketch of an enigmatic figure can be discerned. The artist, perhaps dissatisfied with his composition, abandoned it. It seems likely that Spilliaert himself later framed the work leaving only the central part visible. This reframing explains the presence of a second signature above the first.

This drawing can be considered a prototype of the three-quarters portraits which Spilliaert later produced, while at the same time exploring full-length portraits of himself reading or working in his studio.

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