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Painted portraits

In the sixteenth century occupation was the primary determinant of social standing, and ranking was always governed by a person's proximity to physical labour. This explains why, despite his achievements, Rubens wrote that he was not a prince but "one who lives by the work of his hands". Since the Middle Ages painting had not been considered a Liberal Art, because it was mechanical - a craft that could be learnt, unlike poetry, for instance, which was considered to have an intellectual foundation. In Italy, painters began to challenge the idea that an artist had no inherent creative powers, and in doing so renegotiated their position in society. They also began to paint themselves in innovative ways. It would be simplistic to say that all Renaissance painters considered manual work to have medieval qualities, as some artists painted themselves holding the tools of their trade (i.e. easels, paintbrushes and palettes). However, others painted self portraits without such props. Titian (c.1485-1576), who greatly influenced Rubens and Van Dyck, painted a self portrait for Emperor Charles V, calling himself aeques Caesareus ('Caesar's knight'). A painter's tools were replaced by swords, fine clothes and architectural elements, usually reserved for sitters of an elevated rank.

In Antwerp certain artists wanted to achieve the same prestige. Many embarked upon a tour of Italy, a journey which became almost a right of passage for any aspiring artist. These Flemish painters returned to Antwerp with heightened respect for their profession. Influence of the Italian painters filtered down to Van Dyck, whose sitters adopt the air of gentlemen. In his portraits the pose, the tilt of the head and the hands are intended to look courtly and refined. Hands in his portraits of artists are slender and white, hiding any reference to the manual labour involved in their profession.