Self-portraits – across 500 years

1.0 Art and Sculpture

Portraiture was the French Academy’s second-most important genre in its hierarchy. It described this as focusing on ‘capturing likeness’, this genre was lucrative, but less well-thought-of than history painting. Portraitists were derided for simply copying nature rather than inventing, though few portraits were executed entirely from life.

Self-portraits act as a historical record of the artist’s face, body and personality, and are most often created for posterity. But, as often, it might be an exercise for the artist in developing skills while not having the costs of a sitter. Of course the same question has to be asked as for general portraits, is the self-portrait accurate, is it enhanced or self-deprecating, does it have other objectives and messages.


An early Rembrandt self-portrait, dated 1628

Earliest extant Van Gogh self-portrait, 1886

Frida Kahlo’s earliest known self-portrait, 1926

Rembrandt produced over eighty-ninety self-portraits, Van Gogh thirty-five and Frida Kahlo, who painted 143 artworks in her lifetime, produced 55 self-portraits, commenting “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best’

However, in a way this all started with Neanderthal cave painting. Discovered in 1951, the Cave of Maltravieso in Extremadura Spain was found to contain human skulls and the remains of animals, among ceramics and early tools. Researchers found seventy-one negative hand stencils here, one dated to 66,700 BP and therefore must have been created by a Neanderthal.

Jan Van Eyck is normally acredited as the earliest artist to produce self-portraits, his first being in 1433, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban.


Van Eyck – 1433

However the very next year he cunningly inserted his own image within the Arnolfini Portrait, the reflection in the convex mirror in the background of the piece reveals the artist at work.

A generation later Piero della Francesco inserted a self-portrait into his Resurrection fresco, painted in the 1460s in the Palazzo della Residenza in the town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy. Placed high on the interior wall facing the entrance, the fresco has for its subject an allusion to the name of the city (meaning “Holy Sepulchre”), derived from the presence of two relics of the Holy Sepulchre carried by two pilgrims in the 9th century. The hall was used solely by Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors, who before starting their councils, would pray before the image. The sleeping soldier in brown armour on Christ’s right is said to be a self-portrait of Piero. The guard holds a lance and is depicted sitting in an anatomically impossible pose, and appears to have no legs. Piero probably left them out so as not to break the balance of the composition.


della Francesca’s Resurrection c1460s

Piero della Francesca –

self-portrait? – 1465

In the 16th and 17th centuries, self-portraits tended to be head and shoulders, based on mirror images, because photography was still some way off. Albrecht Dürer was best known for woodcuts and engravings, but the Northern Renaissance artist also produced self-portraits. This year 1500 painting was entitled Self-Portrait at 28 and is signficiant because he portrays himself as rather Christ-like, it is suggested he did this to show his talent was from God. Perhaps this was the strident claim of a young man, our three other self-portraits from this perios are of artists at the end of their careers/lives.

Perhaps approaching death was a stimulus for them to record themselves for posterity? Da Vinci would have been approaching his 60sm seven years before he died, as he sketched this rare self-portrait entitled Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk. El Greco’s 1595-1600 painting, Portrait of an Old Man, would be of him in his late 50s, though he lived to 72 years. There is some debate about whether it is a self-portrait, but he appears to have included himself in a number of his works and the resemblance is strong. Rembrandt’s piece is entitled Self-Portrait at the age of 63 and therefore completed in the year of his death.


Albrecht Dürer – 1500

Leonardo Da Vinci – c1512
Portrait of an Old Man, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (Greek, Iráklion (Candia) 1541–1614 Toledo), Oil on canvas
El Greco – 1595-1600

Rembrandt – 1669

Although Antony van Dyck depicted himself at work, it is the artwork that tends to dominate the image. Gustave Corbet’s The Desperate Man (Le Désespéré) pressents his anxiety, at this time his style was moving from the prevailing Romanticism to Realism. Of course we have to decide whether this was him recognising the theatricality of the emotion, or whether it was his true state. It is also interesting that he moved from the normal portrait upright orientation to a landscape format – as had van Dyck two centuries earlier.

Claude Monet showed an altogether ‘cooler’ image. His gaze does not meet the viewer’s eye as his face is turned slightly away from the centre. This enables Monet to render light and dark, the light falls on the left of the face, and casts darker shadows elsewhere.

Van Gogh ‘s late-1889 self portrait without beard, can of course be compared with his thirty plus other portraits. It is all the more evocative because this was close to his death the next year, at just 37 years old. He wrote to his sister, I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love. In another letter he told her that it isn’t easy to paint oneself, but one seeks a deeper likeness than that of the photographer.

Self-Portrait with a Sunflower - Wikipedia
Anthony van Dyck 1632-3
Le Désespéré - Wikipedia
Gustave Courbet – 1844-45

Claude Monet – 1886

Van Gogh – 1889

Mortality became a regular theme for self-portraits in the late 19th c. Back in 1540 an anonymous portrait of Sir Brian Tuke depicted death hovering behind the subject, its skeletal hand pointing at an hour glass. in 1872 the Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin, used a similar appraoch in a self-portrait that showed death playing a single-stringed violin, a comment on his mortality.

Only thirty-one years old, Edvard Munch created a self-portrait, with him as a spectral figure, displaying the bones of an arm at the bottom of the picture serving as a memento mori (reminder of death). They are balanced by the artist’s name and the date at the top of the image; together these details turn it into a kind of tombstone, or sepulchral tablet.

Lovis Corinth made it a rule to celebrate every birthday by producing a self-portrait, these were often comical. The featured self-portrait presents him alongside an anatomical skeleton exhibit for medical students. It is beleived that he was deliberately mocking the 1872 Böcklin, and he also signed it (top right hand corner) to emulate the 1500 Dürer self portrait. He was just 38 years old.

Much later, Andy Warhol mirrored the theme with his Polaroid Polarcolor Self-Portrait with Skull of 1977. Warhol would select photographs (often Polaroids), have these enlarged onto silk screens, then get his ‘Factory’ assistants to lay the screens over canvases and apply one or two colours with a squeegee.


Arnold Böcklin – 1872
Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm
Edvard Munch – 1895

Lovis Corinth – 1896

Warhol – 1977

During the 20th century portraiture adopted many different approaches. The Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele’s career was short, intense, and productive, while his licentious lifestyle was marked by scandal. Before succumbing to the ‘Spanish Flu’ in 1918, at the age of just twenty-eight, he had created over three hundred oil paintings and several thousand works on paper. This self-portrait was nude, a regular choice for Schiele, he routinely created erotic and deeply psychological portraits.

Renoir and Fry are very different, yet extremely traditional in their head and shoulder compositions. Renoir used a white hat in a very casual pose, hats were a regular for French self-portrait – Monet (above), Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Gauguin and the French-based van Gogh all have iconic self-portraits wearing hats.

Roger Fry first established his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, then became an advocate of developments in French painting it was he that first termed this ‘Post-Impressionism’. He was also the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain. His controversial life as a member of the Bloomsbury Group, is something of a contrast to this conventional self-portrait, and he does wear a hat.


Egon Schiele – 1910
Self-Portrait with a White Hat, 1910 - Pierre-Auguste Renoir - WikiArt.org
Pierre-Auguste Renoir – 1910

Roger Fry – 1928

Leonora Carrington – 1937-8

By the middle of the 20th c the genre’s exponents were eschewing the traditional approach. The Two Fridas was completed after her divorce from Diego Rivera. It portrays Frida’s two different personalities, the traditional Frida in Tehuana costume, with a broken heart, and the independent, modern Frida. Frida wrote in her diary that this painting originated from her memory of an imaginary childhood friend. It was much later that she admitted it expressed her desperation and loneliness with the separation from Diego.

Whereas Dali portrays himself as an amorphous, soft face, supported by crutches, above, a slice of fried bacon. He saw this as a symbol of organic matter and of the everyday nature of breakfasts in New York’s Saint Regis Hotel. Dalí recalled the piece of flayed skin with which Michelangelo represented himself in the Sistine chapel and argued the most consistent thing of our representation is not the spirit or the vitality, but the skin.


Frida Kahlo – 1939
Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon, 1941 - Salvador Dali - WikiArt.org
Salvador Dali – 1941

ultcult.com’s final two selections are superficially quite traditional portraits.

Charles ‘Chuck’ Close redefined the portrait in the contemporary art world with this first larger-than-life portrait paintings. Close used photographs and drew a grid system to break it and then reproduced this on a larger scale, a technique he suggested combined realistic presentation and abstract detail.

The Realist Lucian Freud is best known for his portrayal of the human form, and for his intimate, honest, often visceral portraits. Working only from life, he mainly worked with those he was close to, often asking subjects to sit for hundreds of hours over multiple sittings to better capture the essence of their personality. Though this self-portrait is entitled Reflections, it focuses heavily on the contrasts in his face, clearly expressing hs internal conflicts, his face a mask but with truth in his eyes.


Chuck Close – 1967
Image description
Lucian Freud – 1985

This whistle-stop of self-portraiture is backed by a full database of other self-portraits, and even more withing the Search by Artist section.

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