Léon Spilliaert (Belgian, 18811946)
Gouache, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper; 20 3/4 x 14 7/8 in. (52.7 x 37.8 cm)
Gift of William S. Lieberman, in honor of A. Hyatt Mayor, 1980 (1980.208)
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels
The Belgian painter Léon Spilliaert was strongly influenced by Symbolism, with its emphasis on subjective reality and evocative moods, as well as by the Expressionist work of Edvard Munch and James Ensor. He is especially noteworthy for bridging the transition between those two movements in his scenes of solitary, introspective figures in isolated, mysterious settings. This watercolor is one in a series of self-portraits that Spilliaert executed in 1907 and 1908. He has depicted himself sitting astride a bentwood chair, his drawing board propped up before him, in the act of creating the very self-portrait that we are viewing. He is surrounded by the familiar, everyday objects of his studiocoat rack, umbrella, gas lampand yet the picture as a whole suggests the illusory nature of visual reality. Behind the artist hangs a rectangular mirror, reflecting yet another mirror with an ornate frame, which we can assume holds the image that the artist is copying. Moreover, the placement of the multiple mirrors over Spilliaert's head suggests a search for identity in the mental processes of his art. At this point in his career, at the age of twenty-six, Spilliaert had worked for the publisher Edmond Deman in Brussels and was on the verge of obtaining gallery representation in Paris. Although he mingled with various literary and artistic circles in that cultural capital, showing his work in numerous group salon exhibitions, Spilliaert was never affiliated with any one group or movement, but maintained a certain individualistic, independent status throughout his career.