An overview of self-portraits in art history
From previous researches and exhibition visit dedicated to the self-artists-portraits (Schaffeld, Sep and Dec 2015) I understand self-portraits as I wide area that goes far beyond representing merely the image of the self. It can help to reflect on the artist’s identity or to mirror the image of the “ME” the artist wants to convey.
The artist can convey specific roles, using props of his/her profession as a narrative (see Rembrandt or Van Gogh). The act of observation can also play a major role. Further the emotions and feelings of the artist during the process of making can lead towards visual translation of the inner world of the artist.
The portrait becomes more of an interactive medium looking at the relationship of the artist, the portrait, and the viewer. With deconstructed images, strong bodily awareness, and different media the self-reflection of the human viewer is under discussion
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669)
– ‘Self Portrait at the Age of 63’, 1969
Oil on canvas (86 x 70.5 cm)
[Online image] London: National Gallery. Available from: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-63 [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> This late self-portrait by Rembrandt is perhaps one of the most sincere self-portraits by the artist. In his earlier years Rembrandt felt at ease with masquerade and depiction himself in different roles (I feel quite similar to the works by Cindy Sherman). This painting conveys more of an inner reflection.
Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
– ‘Self-Portrait‘, July – August 1887
oil on canvas (44.5 cm x 33.6 cm)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
[Online image] Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum. Available from: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0135V1962v [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> I find this self-portrait by Van Gogh quite appealing as it shows on the one hand a mirror image of the artist. On the other hand I sense an openness and inner insecurity in this painting. Rather traditional in composition it keeps the observer asking question of what the artist may feel or think.
In comparison to Van Gogh’s self-portrait a portrait painted by Paul Gauguin during the time they lived together in Arles.
http://www.wikiart.org/en/paul-gauguin/van-gogh-painting-sunflowers-1888 [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> Gauguin depicts Van Gogh as a painter in front of the easel painting sunflowers in bold colours and quite relaxed.
Gwen John (1876 – 1939)
– ‘Self Portrait’, 1902
Oil on canvas (448 x 349 mm)
[Online image] Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/john-self-portrait-n05366 [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> Gwen John was always less known and largely dominated by her brother Augustus. Only in recent years she became better known. This self-portrait – compared to her portrait paintings – is painted with a bold red color in front of a middle- dark background. This painting conveys a sense of modesty and reflects perhaps the missing recognition of the artist by other (if one would interpret and go that far). It is painted very accurately with focus on details. Nevertheless I have the feeling that the artist is not focusing on the observer but rather on herself.
Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011)
– ‘Self-Portrait‘, 1963
Oil on canvas (305 mm x 251 mm)
[Online image] Available from: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02345/Lucian-Freud [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> this painting with bold expressive strokes with a limited palette emphasises the underlying structure of the face. At that time the physiognomy of the human face was considered as key to the refection of the inner state of mind in contact of Sigmund Freud’s psychology.
and a self-portrait 40 years later:
– ‘Self-Portrait – Reflection’, 2002
Oil on canvas ( 66 x 50.8 cm)
[Online image] Available from: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/article/freuds_self_portrait_reflection_2002 [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> this later self-portrait still builds on characteristic physiology of the face but outs now the artist into context with his work (abstract painting in the back) With more features shown (upper torso, hand) the painting gives more information about the artist.
and in comparison a triptych portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon (1964)
[Online image] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/artsales/8234354/Francis-Bacons-painting-of-Lucian-Freud-revealed.html [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
and the self-portrait by
Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992)
– ‘Self-Portrait‘, 1969
Oil on canvas (35.5 x 30.5 cm)
[Online image] Private collection.Available from: http://francis-bacon.com/artworks/paintings/1960s [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> Bacon deconstructs the human figure with abstract and distorted strokes the ideal of a face. The use of rather artificial colours underlines composed disturbing and surrealistic image. The paintings do not comfort, they convey a sense of desperation and unhappiness. The paintings seems to me rather a reflection of the inner state of mind in context of the external influences of the world.
Jenny Saville (b. 1970)
– ‘Reverse‘, 2002-3
[Online image] New York: Gagosian Gallery. Available from: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/jenny-saville-reverse [Accessed 05 Aug 2016]
=> although the paintings by Saville are not called ‘Self-portrait’ she often takes her body to depict figurative paintings of woman in vulnerable positions. The close up view on our flesh is mirrored by the intense use of oil paint with its material qualities. Rather abstract brush and other strokes on large scale paintings lead towards an intimate engagement of the observer to reflect about the connotations and at times pre conceived opinions about the human body. The painting ‘Reverse‘ is darker and redder compared to many other figurative paintings by Saville. The horizontal position alongside the mirrored image on the bottom gives for me the impression of ben squeezed in. Disturbing and thee focus of the open mouth emphasises the vulnerability of what could be seen otherwise as a sensual image. Compared to the above mentioned self-portraits Saville is placing a real focus on fine rendered eye. The observer gets really absorbed by the intensity of the eyes.
Maria Lassnig (1919 – 2014)
– ‘Self Portrait with Saucepan‘, 1995
[Online image] New York: Gagosian Gallery. Available from:
=> Lassnig did paint herself and her body in various ways and over her artist life. She painted how she felt about herself and her emotional state of mind comes across her various self-portraits. In bold colour and expressive strokes this painting shows the tension between how we feel about ourselves and how we present us to the external world. The saucepan jammed over the head of the artist and she screams against this cruelty. A painting with a narrative and social critical statement. The used colours support this extensive message. She goes further than e.g. Freud who conveys a cognitive reflection of himself. Lassnig just paints directly her inner feelings onto the canvas.
Lassnig and Saville are ‘using’ their own bodies to visualise inner emotions and challenges the observer of how we look at human figures. Both of them pushing us to look beyond.
- Schaffeld, S. (weblog post, 27 Sep 2015) ‘Research point – Self-portrait‘ Available from: http://ocalog.stefanschaffeld.com/?p=2469
- Schaffeld, S (weblog post, 15 Dec 2015) ‘Exhibition “Ich/Nicht-Ich (Me/Not Me) – Self-Portraits” – Kunsthaus Zurich‘. Available from: http://ocalog.stefanschaffeld.com/?p=3186