Self Portraits
History, Characteristics of Self-Portrait Paintings in Western Art.

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The famous Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by
Jan van Eyck, pictured left. One of
the greatest portrait paintings ever.

Self-Portrait Paintings (c.1400 BCE - present)

Self-portraiture is a long established form of portrait art, dating from Ancient Egypt. Since then, many of the Old Masters and most famous painters after them, from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, to Picasso and Francis Bacon, have reproduced their own image in a variety of media, for a variety of artistic, commercial and self-promotional motives. Indeed, the history of art has witnessed several examples of artists executing repetitive self-portraits, sometimes for emotional reasons.

Recent examples of this compulsive self-portrait painting include works by the Post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh, the German Expressionist draughtsman and short-lived prodigy Egon Schiele, and the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

NOTE: The two most expensive self-portraits sold at auction are: Portrait of the Artist Without a Beard (1889) by Van Gogh, sold at Christie's in 1998 for $71.5 million; and Six Self Portraits (1986) by Andy Warhol, sold at Sotheby's New York in 2014 for $26.7 million. See also Andy Warhol's Pop Art of the 60s.

Self-Portrait (1656-8) by the great
Baroque painter Rembrandt.

For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.

Self-Portrait (1889) by Van Gogh.
Note the sombre blue colour.
For more, see the collection in the
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Early History

Curators have found few remains of self-portraits completed during Antiquity, in Ancient Greek, Egyptian or Roman art. This is partly because only a tiny number of paintings have survived, and partly due to a lack of evidence concerning the individual artists involved. Sculpture, being more durable than wall or panel paintings, has survived in greater numbers.

Early self-portraits sculpted in stone include one dating from 1365 BCE by Bak, the head sculptor of the controversial Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. Bak also executed the portraits: Pharaoh Akhenaten (c.1364 BCE) and may be responsible for the bust of Nefertiti (c.1350 BCE). Records also suggest that the Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias inserted a likeness of himself in the frieze "Battle of the Amazons" at the Parthenon in Athens.

Self-Portrait (1907) by Picasso,
just as he was starting to develop
Cubism with Georges Braque.
facial lines resemble those in
Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.

Northern Renaissance

The earliest surviving self-portraits after Antiquity are believed to be those by the Dutch Northern Renaissance painter Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) (Man in a Red Turban, 1433) and by the French 'Peintre du Roi' Jean Fouquet (1420-1481) (Self-Portrait miniature, c.1450). Van Eyck also painted The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), depicting a betrothed or married couple. The man is considered to be modelled on himself.

The Nuremberg painter and printmaker Albrecht Durer was also a prolific self-portraitist, completing more than twelve paintings and drawings of himself, in silverpoint, gouache, oils and woodcut.

Self-Portrait In Olive And Brown
(1945) by Max Beckmann.

Self-Portrait (1997) by contemporary
Photorealist artist Chuck Close.

For a guide to the different forms
of fine and applied arts,
please see: TYPES OF ART.

Self-Portraiture of the Italian Renaissance

According to convention, Italian painters during the Renaissance tended to avoid producing formal self portraits, but frequently inserted images of themselves in their painting. The artist Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Masaccio appears as an apostle in his Brancacci Chapel frescoes (c.1426), while Piero della Francesca inserted himself as a soldier in the religious mural Resurrection (1463). Sandro Botticelli used an image of himself in his Adoration of the Magi (1481), while Michelangelo Buonarroti used his own face when painting St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel (1536-1541), and Raphael included himself among the characters of School of Athens (1510). The Venetian artist Titian is believed to have included himself as well as his son and a young cousin in his Allegory of Prudence (1565-70). Occasionally, a painter would depict a true-life group portrait in which he had a legitimate presence. For example, in the picture of The Gonzaga Court (1474) by Andrea Mantegna, the artist appears as himself. In addition, some artists - like the Florentine Gentile Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci - did execute more formal self portraits. Interestingly, the sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio took on the young Leonardo as a pupil and is belived to have used him as his model for his sculpture David (c.1470).

After the Renaissance

With the advent of easel-painting and the widespread use of oils on canvas, portraiture of all kinds - including ones of family, friends, groups and self-portraits - became more commonplace. As well as the Mannerist artist El Greco, later self-portraitists of the Baroque era included the Spanish artists Velazquez, and Francisco de Zurbaran, the French classical/academic artist Nicolas Poussin, and the Dutch/Flemish painters Rubens (who also painted his wife many times and his family), Anthony Van Dyck, and the prolific Rembrandt - who executed over 40 self-portraits, many used for training pupils and as the basis for characters in his larger works. A particularly interesting work is the Triple Self-Portrait (c.1646), by Johannes Gumpp, as is Self-Portrait (1641, National Gallery, London) by Salvator Rosa (1615-73), the Byronesque Italian. Eighteenth century self-portraiture is well illustrated by Self-Portrait (1775, Hermitage, St Petersburg) by the German court portraitist Mengs (1728-79), Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting (1792, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow) by the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), and Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782, National Gallery, London) by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842).


Nineteenth Century Self Portraits

Almost all later artists painted themselves either individually or in groups. Self portraits from the 19th century include those of Francisco Goya (1800), Eugene Delacroix (1837), James McNeill Whistler (1872), Edouard Manet (1879), Paul Cezanne (1881), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1883), and Edouard Vuillard (1889), among many others. One of the most creative self-portraits was The Artist's Studio (1855) by the French Realist Gustave Courbet. Full of allegorical narrative, this masterpiece - his personal manifesto of Realism - depicts the artist at work surrounded by his 'friends' (to the right) and his enemies (to the left). It is reminiscent of Las Meninas (1656), the masterly political portrait of the future Empress Margarita, the daughter of King Phillip IV, by the courtier artist Diego Velazquez. Another great self portraitist was Vincent Van Gogh, whose 37 portraits between 1886 and 1889 chart his emotional and physical decline.

Twentieth Century Self Portraits

The painters Henri Matisse (1906), John Singer Sargent (1907), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1910), Marc Chagall (1910), Sir William Orpen (1910), Paul Klee (1922) and Max Beckmann (1939) all produced stylistic portraits of themselves, while the neurotic Viennese artist Egon Schiele, consumed by his animalistic view of Man, executed numerous shocking self portraits (eg. Eros, 1911; or the grisly Nude, 1910). Edvard Munch painted himself regularly during his life in an attempt to depict the ill treatment he suffered at the hands of Fate (and women). The more restrained, less-neurotic German Impressionist/ expressionist painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) painted himself once a year on his bithday. His most famous self-portrait is probably Self-Portrait with Skeleton (1896, Stadtische Galerie, Lenbachhaus). Likewise, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), the famous Mexican artist crippled in a car accident, completed more than 50 self portraits depicting her personal torment. The great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso painted a wide range of autiobiographical portraits depicting himself at various stages of his artistic career.


Contemporary self portraiture has developed across all media. It encompasses Pop Art portrait prints by Andy Warhol, surrealistic portraits in oils by Francis Bacon (1909-1992); large-scale neck-up self-portraits in the photorealism style by the paralyzed American artist Chuck Close (b.1940) - who builds up his paintings in small squares from photographs - as well as blurred works by the German artist Gerhard Richter (b.1932); and mixed-media self-portraits by the celebrated UK narcissistic couple Gilbert and George [Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore] (b.1943 and 1942).

Portrait Collections

Arguably the greatest museum dedicated exclusively to portraiture is the National Portrait Gallery in London, which contains some 200,000 portraits, of which several thousand are self-portraits. Two impressive assemblies of self portraits are located in Florence and in Ireland. The prestigious Florentine art museum, the Uffizi Gallery, houses an outstanding collection originally assembled by Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici in the latter half of the seventeenth century. It includes more than 200 portraits, featuring works by Pietro da Cortona, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and Marc Chagall. In Ireland, the National Self Portrait Collection, consisting of over 400 self-portraits by native or resident Irish artists, is on permanent display at the University of Limerick. The collection spans several centuries and includes fine art portraiture in many different media, from watercolour, gouache, ink, acrylics, tempera, ink-and-wash, and oils, to sculpted compositions in bronze, stone, steel and numerous combinations of mixed-media. Another fine collection is located in Washington's National Portrait Gallery.

• For more about the different types of painting (portraits, landscapes, still-lifes etc) see: Painting Genres.
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