Exploring the evolution of the self-portrait

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While we may live in the age of the selfie, these snapshots should not be confused with a proud tradition that has seen contributions from the likes of Parmigianino, Vincent van Gogh and Lucian Freud. Julia Schouten explores the evolution of the self-portrait.

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11 August 2022 | 7 minute read

Since the rise in popularity of self-portraiture, artists have depicted themselves in many different styles or mediums and for many different reasons. Motivations have ranged from wanting to display success or indulge in self-mockery, to communicating artistic ideas or emulating past masters. Carefully considered visual autobiographical statements, self-portraits have allowed artists to shape how they want to be perceived and remembered, so how did this all begin?

Although portraiture was pioneered by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, it is generally agreed that the Renaissance (1300–1600) was a crucial period for self-portraiture, as it marked the growing interest in distinguishing the personality and style of individual artists.

Art historian Arturo Galansino, curator of numerous Renaissance exhibitions during his time at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and now Director of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, explains that during the Renaissance “we see a strong shift in the perception of the artists’ profession and their role in society”.

Artists such as Raphael were prestigious figures of their time, and “quickly became much more than mere artisans, belonging to a highly intellectual world”. The rise of humanism placed value on the importance of people rather than divine or supernatural matters. “Man was celebrated as the centre of the universe, as the most perfect creature mirroring God’s perfection, and artists wanted to show their features, their psychology and character in their expressions, attitudes and gazes,” explains Galansino.

A self-portrait was supposed to embody the essence of the artist’s skills and style; a kind of resume, according to Galansino. He references the artist Parmigianino, who, in 1524, took his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror to Pope Clement VII “as a presentation of his ability and boldness”. The same painting was also recently praised by art critic Jerry Saltz as containing all the attributes of the modern-day selfie: “The subject’s face from a bizarre angle, the elongated arm, foreshortening, compositional distortion, the close-in intimacy.”

Self-portraiture was of particular importance for women artists during the Renaissance. It was a way to present a story about themselves for public consumption, removed from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by male artists. It has been suggested that the very first self-portrait showing an artist at work at the easel – a now-prevalent composition in art’s history – was by Catharina van Hemessen, in her 1548 self-portrait. She looks out solemnly, with a modest demeanour and holding a paintbrush, telling us that she is both a working artist and a respectable woman.

Self-invention

The notion of an invented personality and staging of the self is emphasised in Cindy Sherman’s photography. Throughout her career, she has presented a sustained exploration of the construction of identity, drawing on imagery from films, TV, magazines, the internet and art history. Working as her own model, Sherman has captured herself in a range of guises and personas.

In a similar vein, in 2014, Amalia Ulman used social media platform Instagram to create a fictional alter ego inspired by stereotypes of how young women present themselves online. The scripted performance, Excellences & Perfections, explored how cultural capital is reflected in selfies, and undermined the pretension that social media is a place of authenticity. While using Instagram as a medium may seem a far cry from Parmigianino’s oil-on-wood painting, the fact that we are looking at a self-constructed fiction remains.

With the rise of social media, where all the world is now a stage, personal lives are increasingly publicised and individual identity is positioned at the centre of the universe. It is within this context that Lisa Smit, Associate Curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, says that “the self-portrait is as important as ever. We simply love to look at each other, and ourselves.” Our fascination with the self-portrait is “human, and therefore timeless. We have long cherished the belief that artists somehow capture the sitter’s soul in a portrait and hence that a self-portrait is an expression of their own personality.”

This concept of artists expressing and contemplating their inner being emerged alongside romanticism in the 19th century. The wide assumption, and hope, that self-portraits provide privileged access to the sitter’s psyche is perhaps most apparent when considering Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo.

Both have become cult figures within the art world and beyond, in large part due to the self-portraits they produced and the ensuing psychological and biographical speculation. Kahlo’s self-portraits – featuring the artist’s distinct black unibrow and slight moustache – are understood as a way through which she was able to communicate the anguish resulting from her disability, chronic pain and miscarriages.

The condition of van Gogh’s mental health is similarly evident within his work. A recently attributed self-portrait from 1889 is, according to Louis van Tilborgh, the Van Gogh Museum’s Senior Researcher, the “only work van Gogh is known to have painted while suffering from psychosis”.

The two painters’ renown can to a degree be attributed to the intimacy and vulnerability recognised in their depictions. As Smit explains: “The more ‘personal’ a portrait or self-portrait is deemed to be, the more it is appreciated and seen as symbolic and characteristic of the depicted person.”
While there is a considerable performative element to self-portraiture, there is also subjectivity, introspection and self-analysis. Modern and contemporary artists’ approaches to the self-portrait have become more conceptual than straightforwardly representational.

Louise Bourgeois’ Torso, Self-Portrait is a surrealist, anthropomorphic sculpture combining female fertility and helplessness in a pear-shaped torso. Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait at Eleven Years Old depicts Stevie Wonder in dots, the pop idol standing in as an emotive substitute for the artist as a child. Tracey Emin’s installation of her own bed, complete with booze bottles, cigarette butts, stained sheets and underwear reveals the aftermath of the artist’s breakdown.

Works such as these raise the question of whether likeness is a necessary part of the self-portrait. Both Galansino and Smit draw a boundary between self-portrait and self-expression. Smit believes that “each artwork is personal and carries the creator’s identity”, but that does not mean they are self-portraits. For Galansino, “a self-portrait must represent the artist’s features or attributes. This is a strict rule!”

The Renaissance maxim that every painter paints themselves continues to hold true. We treasure the self-portrait and dig for clues to the secrets of its creator, searching for the artist’s soul. We have a celebrity interest in the artist’s identity, their appearance, their biography, their ‘genius’.
Sometimes we don’t have to look too deeply. Lucian Freud’s Self-Portrait With a Black Eye reveals the product of a row between the artist and a taxi driver, during which Freud was struck in the face. The artist was said to have retreated to his studio rather than seek treatment, using his swollen features as the inspiration for the work.

Other self-portraits can reveal more about an artist’s interests and lifestyle rather than their emotional state. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a frequent visitor of the Parisian nightclubs, drinking and partying until the early hours. In At the Moulin Rouge, entertainer Jane Avril with her flaming orange hair is the focal point of a centrally seated group on the floor of the cabaret, but the artist has also inserted himself around the table.

The age of the selfie

Large exhibitions are usually prefaced by artists’ (self-) portraits, and extensive museum shows have been dedicated to the genre of (self-)portraiture. Many contend that the current ubiquity of photographic selfies is symptomatic of our narcissistic, confessional age, yet as the works of Raphael or Toulouse-Lautrec reveal, our fascination with the self-portrait has an extensive history.

There are of course important distinctions between the selfie and the traditional self-portrait – their function, their authors and their audiences – but the selfie has become a defining visual sub-genre within portraiture, reshaping our understanding of how we can represent ourselves. If Jerry Saltz is right and that “we will one day see amazing masters of the form”, then the Rembrandt of the selfie may already be out there, capturing themselves and their world on a smartphone.


The information contained in this document is believed to be reliable and accurate, but without further investigation cannot be warranted as to accuracy or completeness.

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