They look back at us. They look back with eyes that are wary, bold, wondering, assertive, doubting. Artists paint and draw the face and eyes they see in the mirror, but what they seek to show, is a hidden mind looking back out through those eyes. Look to the Italian for the self-portrait, which is l’autoritratto.’ Rittrato is picture or portrait and ‘auto’ is derived from the Greek — self, same, spontaneous; directed from within. The self-portrait, with its combination of self and spontaneity, has challenged and fascinated artists for centuries and led to some of their most powerful, responsive works.
Is it at an inquisition or a Manifesto? Artists’ self-portraits tell us something about their beliefs: who they were, what they aspired to, what became of them over time. Some artists, doubting, questioning, hesitant investigates their faces, eyes and shifting expressions intently, asking the question: “who am I?” While others see definite emotion and character in their features and make bold and unequivocal statements: “this is who I am, unlike any other!”
The self-portrait as an act of philosophical or emotional or psychological or existential investigation.
The youthful future futurist Umberto Boccioni gazes at himself (and us) with a look of quizzical concentration mingled with philosophical detachment as if to say: “ I am here and what does that mean?” While the French Nabis (symbolist) painter, Edouard Vuillard, fishes into the depths of his psyche, with an attitude of intense interest and curiosity. It’s not detached intellectual analysis but a deeply engaged psychological exploration. “Can this ‘face’ really be me? Vuillard often painted with oils on cardboard through an accumulation of colour spots, an approach that facilitated his ordered investigation of appearances.
The self-portrait as an expressive manifesto.
In his self-portrait, The writer Victor Hugo pushes his emotional/existential crisis to a fever pitch. What does it say? Fear? Anger? Horror? Intimations of madness and the dark side. Hugo drew and painted the most expressive and modernist/Surrealist images. The great painter Delacroix to apparently write to Hugo that if he had become a dedicated artist, he would have been one of the best that century.
Salvatore Rosa, a seventeenth-century Italian painter was known for his wild, terrifying landscapes set in the southern Italian scenery where bandits routinely kidnapped unsuspecting travelers. A century later, he was believed to himself have been a bandit, which could have something to do with the melodramatic self-portraits he left behind. He portrayed himself as a dark, troubled Romantic, an angry outsider as if to say: “I’m not bad, I just paint myself that way.” In fact, as well as being a great, dynamic painter, he was an accomplished printmaker, poet, and actor. He was known to be vain, with the unfortunate habit of getting involved in bitter feuds.
Born in 1898, Yuko Saeki was an intense melancholy Japanese pioneering painter with a passion for France and the post-impressionists in the twenties, settled with his family in the twenties to study under Vlaminck. We can see the earnest passion and hope in Saeki’s self-portrait. Sadly, he died in a Parisien asylum of TB, penniless, at the age of 30, hopes dashed. Saeki who is often perceived in his country as a tragic Romantic hero, the Japanese van Gogh.
The self-portrait as a signature within a Masterpiece
For Velasquez, the self-portrait was a calling card and an announcement of rank, within his masterpiece, Las Meninas, the culmination of his art. He commemorates his elevation in rank into the nobility by prominently including himself in the painting of the Infanta with the King and Queen looking on, reflected in the distant mirror. While Filippo Lippi, whose self-portrait is more concealed (but not actually hidden) within the Coronation of the Virgin, seems to coyly be saying to us “aha! You have found me! And yes, it is I who made all of this.” He doesn’t gaze with rapt attention at the Virgin, like all the others. Rather, he acknowledges us, breaking the fourth wall. His expression contains pride, nonchalance and a curiosity as to how we might be responding to his masterpiece.
The self-portrait as an artist’s personal narrative
Narrative self-portraiture has been going on since the days of the Renaissance and Baroque. Artists such as Honore Daumier and William Orpen portrayed themselves with the stuff of daily life in the studio: articles of artist’s trade such as canvas, easel paints, and always the palette. Daumier dramatically presents himself before the canvas at the crucial moment of inception. Orpen stands/postures in his posh London studio wearing an imposing, stylish? bowler hat, with the classical inspiration of Venus behind him. Many artists included their family, food, telltale garments and symbolic objects to tell their story. Milanese fresco painter Carlo Francesco Nuvalone includes family and friends in his self-portrait (c.1646). British painter Mary Beal paints herself with her husband and son making a strong statement (c.1663–4). Beale was one of the first women to practice painting professionally. She was outspoken and a successful painter and businesswoman who provided for her family through her art. Almost unheard of in her time.
The self-portrait as a statement: the artist and the ravages of time
Some of the artists who DO manage to live well beyond the age of thirty create striking self-portraits in their later years. These paintings show us an artist who has experienced much, perhaps too much. World-weary, disillusioned even bitter, they no longer exhibit the conscious or unconscious flattery that the younger artists tend towards. Tintoretto was a pupil of Master Titian (Titian, threatened, eventually kicked out his most talented pupil.) Here we see the old Tintoretto, is it sadness or is it anger we see in his expression? (after all, he is said to have threatened to shoot a critic). Ernest Meissonier the realist painter, seems to have seen “too much” in his life.
Jean Dominique Ingres both young and old. The young Master becomes the Old Master. Are we seeing Ingres as he saw himself? Or, despite the utterly convincing realism is it, to some degree, an artful fiction? In each case, he is telling a story about himself, creating a mask. Which version is closer to the truth?
Self-portrait as sleight of hand
M.C. Escher and French early photographer, Jacque Henri Lartigue ‘play’ with ideas of representation through self-portraiture. They ask the question: “Is this really me, a representation of me and an illusion.”
Self-Portrait: the artist is the line
Saul Steinberg, Ronald Searle. The pen and the artist are one. The artist is the line.
Beyond being a basic practice at drawing heads when you don’t have someone else to draw, self-portraiture can be uniquely engaging. You can investigate your features, expression, psychology or make a bold statement, or tell a story about yourself, or raise your status, or comment on the passing of time or just be a line on paper. I can’t make a claim that making a self-portrait will help you know yourself better. The experience of gazing at yourself and trying to capture the image does create opportunities to explore methods, approaches, and ideas on paper and canvas more unselfconsciously (if no one is around) than making a portrait in a class with a model.
“every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey