We finish our look at French painter Léon Cogniet (1794 – 1880) with this wonderful self-portrait.
Cogniet’s greatest success in life came after 1843, not with his landscape or genre work, but when he devoted himself chiefly to portraits and teaching. He taught art at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Ecole Polytechnique; he also taught painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to several generations of artists. Among his acolytes were Dominique Papety, Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat and Adrien Moreau. His devotion to his students was legendary; when he died in the 10th arrondissement of Paris on November 20, 1880, he was buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.
Self-portraits are remarkable personal statements. Since they are both a reflection and a creation of the artist, they illustrate his artistic prowess while seeking to define himself. They are how they see themselves, and how they want to be seen by the world. Sometimes, the artist casts a cold, appraising and clinical eye at himself, and other times provides only a highly romanticized version of himself. Just as we are often our truest selves only when wearing masks, artists are often the most naked when clothed only in paint.
So, what do we see when we look at Cogniet’s self-portrait?
First, obviously, a very handsome man – one who would not be out of place in New York’s hipster environment (other than he seems to be physically cleaner than most hipsters). His hair is a tangled mass, but, for all of that, lush, dark, luxuriant.
Cogniet’s eyes gaze directly at us from beneath heavy, soulful brows. The eyes are, perhaps, the most important note in the picture: they speak of sincerity, sensitivity and introspection. But … for all of that, there is a calculated quality to the effect, almost as if Cogniet thought – “they will see me as a sensitive and complicated man.”
The nose is long, and has a peasant-like flatness. However, the nostrils are small, modulated and delicate. His lips are a rich vermillion, full and mobile – with the barest suggestion of a self-debasing smile.
However, it is his clothes that make the strongest statement. He wears a simple (though striking) red cravat over linen shirt, beige vest and dark topcoat (collar turned up in best Romantic fashion). This is no dandy, no social butterfly, no aspiring court painter. No – this is a self-styled man of the people; a teacher, a sensitive artist without pretentions of gentility, a man of honesty and frank emotional power.
Yes, it’s all calculated … but remember, calculated to both to obscure and illuminate his real self. The choices he makes inspire both admiration and a touch of condescension. Bravo for you, we think, for your lack of pretention, but how pretentious that lack of pretention is!
In this, we should, perhaps, take the word of his many students, to whom Léon Cogniet was a beloved figure. It’s important to remember that in the atelier tradition, the art of painting continued and thrived simply because many dedicated masters made a point of sharing their genius. It is that lack of continuity that has retarded contemporary art to such a lamentable degree, and we are all somewhat diminished by the lack of Léon Cogniets in this world.