Self-portrait of the Artist in his Studio1775 - 1778. Oil on canvas, 39.8 x 31.8 cm.
The family of this celebrated Madrid artist was originally French, and his own aesthetic roots lie outside Spain. In this self-portrait we see him sitting in a chair with cabriole legs, dressed in sumptuous elegance. He is wearing clothes similar to those worn by the majos of Madrid (those somewhat bohemian dandies-with-attitude of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century), but more refined and costly: an embroidered smockcoat, a vest, lace at his collar and cuffs, knee breeches, a sash at his waist, a handkerchief, his hair in a net, and slippers with silver buckles. Beside him, a typical round hat with its braided hatband completes the effect of a combination gentleman-majo that he has striven to produce. The setting for the portrait is the artist’s own studio, where objects for inspiration and the elements of the craft lie about, all presented with admirable precision and detail: classical busts, a palette and brushes, an inkwell and plume, portfolios for drawings and engravings, maps, and books, and as a backdrop a great oval canvas depicting a shipwreck. This canvas rests on an easel whose upper part is half-hidden under rich draperies.
No oval painting by Paret that might correspond to the one in the portrait has thus far been identified. That fact, combined with doubts about the painter’s physiognomy, led critics to question from the first moment whether this was truly a self-portrait. However, a ship similar to the one in the painting-within-apainting, and even with the same ensigns, appears in a portrait of a naval officer done by Paret. The ship-motif may be related to the shipwreck of the San Pedro de Alcántara, which sank at Peniche, off the coast of Portugal, on February 3, 1786, and which Paret may have known about. It is possible that Paret painted or sketched a canvas depicting the shipwreck, perhaps on commission.
This self-portrait, presented in a setting that defines an entire cultural milieu, may evidence the painter’s desire to be seen as a worthy and respectable art professional of humanistic culture; that is, it may be a sort of manifesto of the principles that govern creation, including the fundamental need to possess a solid education -thus explaining the visual references to the wise men of antiquity, scholarship, and geography. Paret’s pictorial strategy of portraying himself in a moment of reflection, or perhaps of inspiration, rather than in the act of painting, emphasizes the intellectual nature of the painter’s work. All of this necessarily implies for the artist a distinguished place in society, which is indicated more overtly here in the portrait in the magnificence of his clothing, clearly that of the upper class. It is also possible that Paret tried to express this social superiority in the portrait of his wife, María de las Nieves Michaela Fourdinier, also in the Prado collection (P3250), in which the lady makes a great show of luxury -luxury, indeed, in all probability above the couple’s financial possibilities.
The precedent for the artist’s pose, with his cheek resting lightly on his hand, is the traditional depiction of Melancholy, one of classical antiquity’s four humors or types of personality. The melancholic cast of mind was perceived as one of the typical traits of an artist, making him a special being, somehow separate from the rest of society (though here in clear dissonance with the elegant and fashionable clothing and Paret’s general worldliness, which we know of from his biography). This detail, more aesthetic than real, might be interpreted as a touch of pre-Romantic sensibility (Luna, J. J.: El Greco to Goya. Masterpieces from the Prado Museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce, 2012, pp. 127-128).