Evolution of the Self-Portrait



Self-portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1847

Untitled2Self-Portrait as Clown with Cigar by Armand Henrion, 1920s


The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet, 1843-1845

With the proliferation of “selfies” and the inordinate amount of attention paid to these endless offerings of our private selves for public consumption, it seems that our global society has become more self involved than ever before.  However, while our desire to post countless pictures of ourselves amidst our daily minutiae seemingly characterizes us as superficial and narcissistic, we are actually partaking in an ordinary act that has existed for hundreds of years.  Artists have been creating self-portraits in sculpture, painting and other mediums for much of history, and these portraits were produced for many of the same reasons that we take our ubiquitous selfies today.  That’s not to say that everyone with a cell phone is the next Van Gogh, but what motivates us to capture our likeness in a picture is quite similar to the reasoning behind many of the iconic self-portraits of the past.


Untitled4Self-Portrait Yawning by Joseph Ducreux, 1783



Self-Portrait with Masks by James Ensor, 1899

Some of the earliest known self-portraits were sculptures and paintings from Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, and their purpose was often to leave a signature of sorts on the work.  One notable example is found in the work of Greek sculptor Phidias.  As the creator of the gold and ivory statue of Athena which stood within the Parthenon, Phidias inserted his own likeness onto Athena’s shield in a probable attempt to show himself as the artist of the piece.  Unfortunately, his acts were considered “impious” and he was imprisoned for his crime.


Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror by Parmigianino, 1524


Self-portrait in the Mirror by Konstantin Somov, 1934

One of the earliest known examples of a self-portraiture from modern times is found in the work of Jan van Eyck.  His Arnolfini Portrait from 1434 depicts a couple who are possibly in the process of getting married.  Also included in the painting is the artist himself, reflected in a mirror and the inscription above the mirror reads “Jan van Eyck was here.” It is thought that van Eyck’s painting served as the inspiration for Diego Velázquez who included himself in the scene of his famous painting Las Meninas. 


Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434


Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656

During the Renaissance, the most common form of self-portraiture was the artist’s insertion of his own likeness into group scenes. Artists as well known as Botticelli, Titan, and Raphael are known to have painted themselves into their art, whether their presence was legitimate or not. Perhaps modern day parallels could be drawn to our preoccupation with “photo bombing” in which a person inserts himself into a photo without the photographer or subject’s permission.


Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, 1475



Self-portrait with Mandolin by Paul Gauguin, 1889

The creation of self-portraits by artists became more common in the 15th and 16th centuries and many of these were done as a form of experimentation or because the artist wished to project himself in a certain image.  For example, Albrecht Dϋrer created several noteworthy self-portraits starting with a remarkably detailed drawing of himself done at thirteen years of age and culminating in his depiction of his own likeness as a Christ-like figure.  The portrait was unusual due to the fact that at the time, few secular portraits were painted with the figure in a frontal pose as it was typically reserved for medieval religious art.  Much has been made of Dϋrer’s positioning and the obvious symbolism utilized within the piece.  The painting could be interpreted as an ironic statement, or to show the artist’s rising social status, or as a way for Dϋrer to declare himself and his talent as being a gift from God.



Self-portrait by Albrecht Dϋrer, 1500


The Artist in His Museum by Charles Willson Peale, 1822

The idea of an artist comparing himself to a religious deity or utilizing a self-portrait to share his rise in the world may strike many of us as ridiculous.  However, let us compare this to our modern day equivalent: the selfie.    Celebrities and everyday people are known for taking photos of themselves which portray them in a flattering fashion.  Perhaps they pose with prized possessions or manipulate their image in a way which makes them seem more attractive than they may be in reality.  This intentional attempt to portray ourselves in a certain light and project an ideal of ourselves is really no different than an artist who paints himself wearing his finest clothes and surrounded by precious objects.


Self-portrait as Spanish Conquistador by Fernando Botero, 1986


Self-portrait by Leonor Fini, 1968

In the centuries that followed, several other artists became known for their work with self-portraits.  Rembrandt sketched his own likeness thousands of times and produced 60 portraits of himself, generating an autobiographical narrative of his life.  Many of Rembrandt’s portraits were created using styles and techniques that would not have been acceptable for paying clients, and in this way it appears that his self-portraits existed as a mode of experimentation in his art form.  Not only do these paintings allow us to view Rembrandt’s development as an artist, we can also see an artist coming to terms with himself, with his aging, and with his mortality.  In a modern day comparison, perusing a user’s collection of his photographs depicting himself and his day to day existence as shared with the world through social media provides us with an equivalent present day narrative.


Self-portrait by Rembrandt


Clairvoyance, self-portrait by Rene Magritte, 1936

While Rembrandt’s experiments provided viewers with a glimpse into his life, later painters made their lives and emotions the focus of their self-portraits.  A perfect example of this lies in the self-portraits created by Vincent van Gogh who painted over thirty portraits of himself in a period of just over two years.  The portraits were painted near the end of his life, prior to his death by suicide and many of them display a man who is clearly at struggle with himself.



Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, 1889



Two Studies for Self-portrait by Francis Bacon, 1977

Another artist who utilized self-portraiture to portray emotion was Frida Kahlo.  After being horribly injured in a traffic accident as a teenager, Kahlo spent the majority of her life suffering from pain and medical complications.  To pass the long periods of time spent convalescing, Kahlo turned to painting and a large portion of her work focused on self-portraits.  Kahlo depicted herself in various scenarios, and most of her paintings present her from the waist up, in a frontal pose.  Many of her portraits portray her broken body and various injuries.  Yet in all of them, although she is alone, she appears resilient and determined.


Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser by Frida Kahlo, 1940


Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta by Francisco Goya, 1820

In addition to utilizing self-portraits to depict an idealized self or to share emotions, artists have also created self-portraits that function as advertisements for their abilities.  Many famous self-portraits capture the artist in the act of painting or focus on his clothing and surroundings to demonstrate his level of success in his work.  However, utilization of self-portraits as advertisements was also an area where female painters made an impact.  As women painters were not always accepted within society, it became necessary to demonstrate their expertise by depicting them at work.  Other women artists felt pressured to show that their work, while good, did not keep them from their expected societal roles as wives, mothers, and objects of beauty.  As such, some female artists chose to represent themselves surrounded by family or in other domestic settings to reassure viewers that creating art had not altered them in some intractable fashion.


Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1787



Self-portrait with daughters by Zinaida Serebriakova, 1921


Self-portrait with Japanese umbrella by Olga Boznanska, 1892

Comparatively, in today’s society, selfies posted on social media are often used as a form of advertisement.  Celebrities constantly update their feeds and add new photos of themselves performing or going about their day-to-day activities to maintain public interest, attract more acclaim, or to inform the public about their latest work.  Many celebrities also share scenes of a more personal nature, perhaps in an attempt to reassure fans that they are no different from the rest of us.


Self-portrait by Francis Picabia, 1940


My Portrait (Self-Portrait in the Green Bugatti) by Tamara de Lempicka, 1929

By the end of the 19th century and on into the 20th century, the widespread use of the camera and new movements in art challenged the importance of the traditional self-portrait.  Although artists still utilized self-portraiture for many of the same reasons, it became necessary for artists to adapt to changing trends and present themselves in more innovative fashions.  This aspect, along with more relaxed social codes meant that artists gained freedom, but they were also compelled to experiment more and more with self representation.  Some artists, such as Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, and M. C. Escher, experimented with mirrors and reflections, while others such as Egon Schiele focused on a distortion of the physical form to represent emotional turmoil.


Triple Self Portrait by Norman Rockwell, 1960


Hand with Reflecting Sphere by M.C. Escher, 1935


Self-Portrait with Black Vase and Spread Fingers by Egon Schiele, 1911

As time passed, the materials used to create self-portraits were no longer limited to paint and canvas or sculptured forms.  Artists began to create conceptual self-portraits, such as Nadar’s revolving self-portrait which consists of a series of photographs of his head as it rotates in a circle.  Today, it seems that artists must have a reason or an inventive approach to justify the creation of a self portrait.  Recent self-portraiture projects which have gained notice include self-portraits made from bottle caps, and images which are the result of digital manipulation.  The theme of fantasy seems to recur quite often in present day self-portraits as many of them depict images which can only be achieved with use of Photoshop.  It seems that many self-portraits of today are more concerned with innovation in creation than in portraying any real information about the artist as subject.

Untitled33Revolving Self-Portrait by Nadar, 1865


Self-Portrait in Landscape by Louisa Matthiasdottir, 1991


Yellow spectrum, self-portrait by Frantisek Kupka, 1907

Untitled36Self-portrait by Chuck Close, 2007


Self-portrait with Mark Perrot by Robert Qualters, 2000

While it is difficult to predict what the future holds for self-portraits, one truth remains in regards to the self-portrait.  At its roots, the self-portrait is a lie of sorts.  It can never be a completely factual representation of its subject. Instead it offers the artist’s perspective and his interpretation of himself; it shares one person’s construction of himself which is based on his specific beliefs, experiences and skills and what he chooses to portray.  This integral aspect of self-portraiture is what maintains our interest in the genre.  While we search self-portraits to learn more about the artist and what inspires him and who he is, the self-portrait will always remain an enigma.


Self-portrait by Piet Mondrian, 1900



Self-portrait by Sofonisba Anquissola, 1554


Reflection with two children, self-portrait by Lucian Freud, 1965


Self-portrait with portrait of Gauguin by Emile Bernard, 1888


Julian with T-shirt by Julian Opie, 2005

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