Queen Elizabeth II self-portrait Lucien Freud 2001 Royal Collection

Queen Elizabeth II has given Canada a present befitting its 150th birthday: an exhibition of modern and Old Master paintings, prints and photos from the Royal Collection. “Portrait of the Artist” opens on Oct. 28 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Rather than focus on grand portraits of kings and queens—that would be a bit too self-aggrandizing a birthday gift for this monarch—this exhibition focuses on images of the artists themselves. Spanning six centuries, it includes self-portraits by geniuses including Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucien Freud and David Hockney, as well as images of artists at work. The exhibition delved deep into the Queen’s collection of Leonardo works to include what the Vancouver Art Gallery calls the “most reliable surviving likeness of Leonardo da Vinci by his student, Francesco Melzi.”

The origins of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday gift

The idea of this exhibition has been on Ian Thom’s mind for five long years. “I first approached the Royal Collection about doing a portraiture exhibition in 2012,” Vancouver’s senior curator-historical explains. He learned that “this project was being planned” by the collection, a charity responsible for the Queen’s spectacular collection as well as the occupied palaces, though it was delayed by some personnel changes at the Royal Collection. But he never lost faith. “We actively solicited this project and, of course, are very grateful to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for this wonderful exhibition and we are also very grateful to the staff of the Royal Collection Trust, particularly Jonathan Marsden, Theresa-Mary Morton and Cameron Crawley who have been instrumental in bringing the show to Vancouver.”

Leonardo da Vinci, c 1515-18 by Francesco Melzi, red chalk. Royal Collection Trust. Copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) c. 1638-39 by Artemisia Gentileschi, oil on canvas. Royal Collection, copyright: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2017
Self-Portrait, by David Hockney, drawn 6 April 2012, drawing. Royal Collection Trust, : Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The cult of self-portraits

In previous centuries, monarchs used portraits of themselves to prove their power and authority. Then, as the Vancouver Art Gallery explain, during the Renaissance,”artists began claiming an increasingly central role in visual culture, as emphasis shifted toward individual achievement and the notion of the artist as a uniquely visionary genius.”

“Well-known self-portraits intended to advertise the artist’s talents are shown alongside more intimate and personal works,” the Royal Collection states. “The exhibition examines a range of themes played out within these objects, from the ‘cult’ of the artist to the symbolism evoked through images of the artist’s studio.”

The show is broken into four sections: portraits of artists, artists at work, playing a role (in which artists chose the persona that they present to the public) and, finally, life and legacy. A larger version of this exhibition was originally created for Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London and ran from late last year until April.

Portrait of the Artist is on at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 4, 2018. It may end a few weeks after Canada’s sesquicentennial is formally over, but let’s not tell Queen Elizabeth II, OK?

The Queen sits for Lucien Freud, 2001 by David Dawson, Royal Collection Trust, : Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017