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Vanitas: The circle of *intentions

Nancy Frazier, University of Massachusetts Amherst


What is the Self-Portrait of Thomas Smith about? In this dissertation I ask that question about a key work in the American art canon. In search of an answer I look for meaning in five outstanding details of the portrait: the subject's powerful blue eyes, the skull beneath his hand, the battle scene on the wall, the poem on the table, and his elegant lace cravat. I find that the painting presents a vivid description of seventeenth-century conflict and emotional as well as spiritual malaise. The artist emerges as an individual philosophically at odds with his peers and disdainful of their of values. Smith's Self Portrait, dated circa 1680, is generally acclaimed as the first known self-portrait painted in the colony and is recognized for its stylistic innovations: Baroque modeling and composition at a time and place when an earlier, linear style prevailed. The painting is also regarded as the first signed canvas in America. These assertions tend to brush aside some troublesome problems: (1) identity of the artist cannot be confirmed; (2) it is not entirely certain the portrait is, indeed, a self -portrait; (3) the signature may not belong to the artist; (4) it may not, in fact, have been painted by a man named Smith; (5) the date assigned to the portrait is conjectural; and (6) its provenance is almost entirely anecdotal. External documentation of this work is clearly unstable, but in spite of, or perhaps because of such uncertainties, when asked to speak for itself the painting is far more remarkable than canonical convention leads us to believe. Research for this painting inspires me to reconsider the question of intention, not in terms of what may have been in the artist's mind, but rather with regard to the intention of the work itself as it interacts with the intention of its observer. The concept of intentionality in this discussion is freed from the onus of intentional fallacy and offers instead a resilient, reflective way of thinking about meaning, especially with reference to the genre of self-portraiture.

Subject Area

American studies|Art History

Recommended Citation

Frazier, Nancy, "Vanitas: The circle of *intentions" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136727.