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The artist at work

A watercolour of an artist seated, working at a canvas and resting his foot on a pile of books. In the background, his female companion is still asleep in bed whilst an unguarded infant pours a drink from a bottle. A second infant sits in front of a fire,

The Chamber of Genius ©

Some of the earliest images of artists 'at work' take the form of St Luke painting a portrait of the Virgin Mary, or Apelles painting the courtesan Campaspe for Alexander the Great. Both were popular subjects for artists during the Renaissance, who sometimes introduced a subtle form of self-portraiture by incorporating their own features onto the figure of the artist.

With their rising status from the Renaissance onwards, it became increasingly common for artists to acknowledge their profession within self-portraits. While some chose to show themselves simply with a palette and brushes, others constructed a more elaborate narrative by including their wider studio environment. Occasionally the artist is conspicuously absent from the composition.

The change in surroundings that artists portrayed reflects the change in how they were taught, with academies across Europe in the eighteenth century providing a structured and multidisciplinary training, moving away from the traditional apprenticeship system. Artists also began to take some elements of their working practice outside. Images of artists in the landscape become increasingly common – something that would find full force in the nineteenth century with the aid of foldable easels and portable metal paint tubes.

Attributed to Guercino (Cento 1591-Bologna 1666)

St Luke painting the Virgin and Child

Pietro de' Pietri (1663-1716)

Apelles painting Campaspe

Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)

The Chamber of Genius

Circle of Benozzo Gozzoli (Florence c. 1421/22-Pistoia 1497)

A young man drawing, and a sleeping dog

Annibale Carracci (Bologna 1560-Rome 1609)

A young man drawing

Anton Maria Zanetti the Elder (1680-1767)

A self-portrait in carnival costume, sketching

Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959)

‘The night cometh, when no man shall work’

After John Vanderbank (1694-1739)

Michael Rysbrack

After Philippe Mercier (1689-1760)

A self-portrait of Philip Mercier

After Francis Cotes (1726-70)

Paul Sandby

After Sir William Beechey (1753-1839)

David Wilkie

Roberts, William Patrick (1895-1980)


Paul Sandby (1731-1809)

A young woman painting

Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)

The Sculptor

Soukop, Willi (1907-1995)

A sculptor in his studio

Claude Gellée, called Le Lorrain (1604/5-82)

An artist drawing from a statue

Joseph Parkin Mayall (1839-1906)

Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-90)

Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935)

Self-portrait with cinematographic camera

John Randall Bratby (1928-92)

A self-portrait in a mirror