Research point: Self-portraits

See my Self Portraits pin board for pictures

First a little revision
I researched self-portraits while studying Drawing 1 and it was interesting to go back to this work and reread it. I was reminded of the many and varied reasons why artists paint self-portraits, including:

  • It is cheaper than hiring a model and, to state the obvious, we are always available to ourselves even when we are broke (e.g. Vincent Van Gogh)
  • To create a record of our changing visage (Rembrandt – created 40 to 50 paintings as self-portraits during his lifetime as well as about 32 etchings and seven drawings)
  • To practice, experiment and try new techniques without fear of offending patrons (Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka)
  • To show off in a narcissistic way and / or to make statements about who we are (Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait posing as Christ, Anthony Sher’s self-portrait in costume as Richard III)
  • To express state of mind and body (e.g. Frida Kahlo’s expressions of physical and emotional pain, Van Gogh’s bandaged ear)

Choose five or six portraits that particularly appeal to you

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940

The artist has divorced her unfaithful husband Diego Rivera ending, until they marry again, her tumultuous relationship with the artist. She is holding a pair of scissors and her cropped hair floats featherlike around her. Is the man’s oversized suit she is wearing Diego’s?  Is Kahlo telling us that without him she doesn’t feel like a woman or is she saying that now she feels as strong as a man? And has Kahlo really cropped her hair or is this how she imagines herself?

Marc Chagall Self Portrait: In the Twilight 1938-43

The artist is outside in a snowy landscape and is painting in front of his easel. An image of his wife is jumping out of the canvas and has almost fused with Chagall’s own face. Chagall is telling us that his wife is very important to him while a surreal cast of characters looks on including a creature with a bird like face, cradling a baby and a striding lamp post. I’m sure there is symbolism in the snow, in the blue of the artist’s face and in the red shawl that connects his wife with the canvas… but I’m not sure how to interpret it. Warm and cold colours? The artist is blue and cold and outside in the snowy landscape while his wife brings warmth?

Lucian Freud Self Portrait: Reflection With Two Children 1965

The artist looms large over the viewer and his children who are reflected as relatively tiny figures in the base of the mirror. This is a disconcerting and powerful painting and hardly an expression of fatherly love. The artist seems aloof and distant from his children, he doesn’t even claim them as his own in the title of the painting. It is perhaps an expression of his discomfort in the role of father and family man.

Compare with portraits of the same sitter by other artists. 

What does this tell you?

Bacon, Auerbach and Craxton were all friends of Freud – friends but artistic rivals you could say. Their styles are clearly all very different. They interpret what they see in very different ways, influenced I expect by their own personal relationship with the sitter.

Marc Quinn – Self 2006 – sculpture

A sculpture made from eight pints of the artist’s own blood is an extraordinary way of expressing self quite literally through the materials used. Quinn remakes the sculpture which is in the National Portrait Gallery every five years. I clearly remember seeing this at the opening night of the Sensations exhibition in 1991 where it was first shown – it made me stop in my tracks.

Quinn said: ”This sculpture came from wanting to push portraiture to an extreme, a representation which not only has the form of the sitter, but is actually made from the sitter’s flesh.

”It only exists in certain conditions, in this case being frozen, analogous to me with a person being alive.”

I’ve Got it All (2000) by Tracey Emin (photograph)

Emin sits with her legs splayed scooping up piles of cash. She has become famous and her bed has been nominated for the Turner prize. This selfie is all about her… as is most of the rest of her art including My Bed (1998), and Everyone I Have Ever slept with (1963-1995). And those faceless figure drawings are her, of course. I’ve done a complete u-turn recently and started to admire and better understand Emin’s work.

Antony Sher Self Portrait as Richard III

The amazingly talented actor and artist Antony Sher uses painting and drawing of himself in character as a means of therapy and as a mode of entry into the imagination of the characters he plays. Here he pictures himself as Richard III slumped forward on crutches. It is, as you would expect, full of drama.


Guardian Newspaper:

Telegraph newspaper:


National Portrait Gallery






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