Since the existence of the art of painting, artists have created self-portraits or included themselves in representations of mythological, religious, or invented themes.

Until the invention of photography, the easiest, though not the only, way to create a self-portrait was to look in a mirror. Depending on the era, this could be more or less expensive. In the 17th century, for example, owning a mirror indicated a certain economic capacity.

It is in this century that we find the curious artist of whom only one work is known, and it is so strange that it has given rise to multiple speculations. This is Johannes Gumpp, an Austrian painter born in Innsbruck around 1626, and little is known about him except that he belonged to a family of artists active in Tyrol and Bavaria between the 16th and 18th centuries. He moved to Florence at a very young age, where in 1646 he created two copies of his only known work.

After that, nothing is known about his life, whether he remained in the Italian city or moved elsewhere, and, of course, the approximate date of his death.

The only things known, as mentioned, are two self-portraits (actually two copies of the same painting), one in a circular format with a diameter of 89 centimeters, preserved in the Vasari Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and another rectangular one that belongs to a private collection in Pocking, Upper Bavaria.

The work is a kind of triple self-portrait, where the artist represents himself three times: the first with his back to the viewer without showing his face, the second through his reflection in the mirror where he is looking, and the third in the painting where he is portraying himself. Both copies of the work are signed and dated 1646 on the sheet of paper depicted at the top edge of the canvas.

In addition, a dog and a cat are represented, whose presence experts interpret as an allegory of the fidelity and autonomy inherent in painting (which the painter wants to emphasize) compared to the image reflected in the mirror, also faithful but fleeting.

According to Pino Blasone in “Mirrors, Masks and Skulls”:

Probably and particularly, what our philosopher painter wanted to say is that the subject of a real person is often a mystery to others and even to oneself. What we can see are the objects of their reflection, either “exact” in a mirror or autonomously interpreted by an artist. Quite often, the latter is more true than the former, although it may seem more like a transfiguration than a simple representation.

For the French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy, this multiple and even redundant representation of the subject is a paradoxical challenge to the precariousness and imminent absence of the subject, with all its personal characteristics and individual limits.

In 1960, the American artist Norman Rockwell made his own ironic version of the theme, appropriately titled “Triple Portrait”, but leaving out the dog and the cat.

However, what Gumpp wanted to convey through such a strange and unique self-portrait remains subject to speculation and interpretation. Why he did not paint more works or if he did under another name or pseudonym will continue to be a mystery.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 25, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Johannes Gumpp, el pintor cuya única obra es un misterioso triple autorretrato


Peter Mühlbauer Schloss Schönburg | Gabriella Baptist, Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Regard du portrait | Pino Blasone, Mirrors, Masks and Skulls | Wikipedia

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