Research point: Self portraits

Investigate some artists self portraits. Look at both well-known self portraits such as Rembrandt and van Gogh and at lesser known artists. Make notes in your learning log.

Self portraits Egon Schiele

Self portraits Egon Schiele

In November last year I visited Facing The Modern, The Portrait in Vienna 1900 at London’s National Gallery and it gave me a little insight into why the featured artists, including Egon Schiele (1890-1918, Austrian) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980, Austrian) created self-portraits.

Oskar Kokoschka  self portraits

Oskar Kokoschka self portraits

Naturally enough, in commissions their wealthy patrons wished to be portrayed as ‘respectable’ citizens with wealth and status. Allowing themselves to be the object of an artistic experiment would have been viewed as risky to say the least. It made sense for the artists themselves to use self portraits to explore new styles and techniques. It meant they did not have to pay models, a subject was always available (!) and it avoided the risk of causing offence to the patrons on whom they relied.

Albrecht Durer self portait painted in 1500 just before his 29th birthday

Albrecht Durer self portait painted in 1500 just before his 29th birthday

There are other motivations for artists to create self portraits. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528, German) painted several immaculate portraits of himself. In the picture on the right, painted in 1500 just before his 29th birthday, he portrays himself in a Christ-like pose with a hand positioned as if giving a blessing. This portrait could easily be interpreted as a narcissistic act of self-adoration. Gustav Klimt (1862-1918, Austrian) claimed never to have painted a self-portrait  and provides us with an altogether different perspective. In his Commentary on a non-existent self-portrait he states: “I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women…There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night…Whoever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my pictures.


Frida Kahlo self portraits

Self-portraits have been used as a means of expressing the artist’s state of mind and body. The numerous portraits painted by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954, Mexican) express physical and psychological suffering as well recording the turbulent nature of her relationship with her often unfaithful artist husband, Diego Rivera. Kahlo started painting after a streetcar accident in 1925  left her disabled. In her lifetime she endured 30 medical operations. Her paintings express issues around loss, infertility, pain and emotion. van-gogh-bandagevan-gogh-self-portraitVincent van Gogh (1853- 1890, Dutch)  – see above – painted more than 30 self-portraits because they provided a means of developing his skills without having to pay for models.  In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “I purposely bought a mirror good enough to enable me to work from my image in default of a model, because if I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” His Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear was painted in January 1889 just weeks after he severed a part of his ear. His right ear is bandaged in the portrait though in reality the wound was to his left ear; the discrepancy is due to his painting a mirror image.

Rembrandt self portrait painted aged 22 in 1628

Rembrandt self portrait painted aged 22 in 1628

It wasn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when scholars studied the work of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669, Dutch) as a whole, that it was discovered how many self portraits he produced. It seems he depicted himself in approximately 40 to 50 paintings, about 32 etchings, and seven drawings.

Rembrandt self-portrait painted in 1669 aged 63

Rembrandt self-portrait painted in 1669 aged 63

Rembrandt’s self portraits create a visual diary of the artist spanning 40 years of life. Perhaps this was his reason for creating so many?                 References The Self Portrait, A Cultural History by James Hall (Daily Telegraphy Review) Art Appreciation, The Arty Factory, Frida Kahlo Rembrandt Van Rijn, life, paintings, etchings, drawings and self portraits – Self portraits by Rembrandt – Wikipedia


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