Research Point: Self-Portraits

Research Point: Self-Portraits

Do some research into artists’ self-portraits… Choose five or six self-portraits that particularly appeal to you…Does the artist portray him/herself as an artist? What is the purpose of the self-portrait? What impression is the artist trying to convey? What impression is actually conveyed?

(NB all images are for editorial use only and not reproduced for commercial gain)

As I was researching self-portraits, I built up a board in Pinterest and was particularly taken by the amount of self-portraits artists make of themselves. Not only is it a fantastic record of their lives, but also of their styles and influences as they change and evolve.  For this reason, I would like to take two contrasting self portraits of each for comparison and apply the criteria above.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

Self-Portrait - Albrecht Durer, 1498

Albrecht Durer – self-portrait 1498


From this portrayal of himself, I would not immediately assume this was an artist. He appears fairly affluent and has a confident air about him. I have the impression that he is building a reputation of good standing and respectability, almost as if this were the equivalent of a modern-day LinkedIn profile picture. If this is the case, he is successful if not a little arrogant in his gaze.








Albrecht Dürer - Self-portrait, 1500:

Albrecht Dürer – Self-portrait, 1500


Continuing with Dürer, moving on a couple of years, we have again, a self-assured young man. This painting is particularly interesting as he seems to have increased his fortunes and is gazing straight out at the viewer. The pose is almost Christ-like, is this a conscious decision? I feel that this young man did nothing by mistake. Even if I give him the benefit of the doubt and he is timid and self-effacing, his representation of himself is anything but.







Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 - 1640 Flemish : Self-Portrait c1620:

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 – 1640 Flemish : Self-Portrait c1620:

I find this painting very appealing, from the composition to the colours used to the brush marks. I don’t see any ulterior motive to the purpose of this painting, other than recording the artist at this time in his life.  It does, of course, show his skill and could very well be used as an example of his work, although, I’m guessing Rubens was safe in his reputation as a painter by this point.

This painting makes me feel kindly to  him, it’s soft and warm, yet is cleverly balanced with the cool blue background to the left.





Self-Portrait - Peter Paul Rubens 1638:

Self-Portrait – Peter Paul Rubens 1638

This next portrait is very much in contrast to the previous one. It is much more sombre and has little of the warmth shown before. Here, the artist depicts himself as an almost aristocratic figure, this being only two years before his death – is he trying to show he still has strength and standing? His gloved right hand appears to be leaning on a cane, although one can’t actually be seen, or is it he disguising arthritic joints? We know he suffered from gout that brought on a fatal heart attack. His other hand is resting on a sword, another symbol of strength? On first view, I think he pulls the illusion off, however, if you look into the eyes, he doesn’t seem to quite believe it himself.



Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), 1910, "Self-Portrait with arm twisted above head," watercolor and charcoal, Private Collection.:

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), 1910, “Self-Portrait with arm twisted above head,” watercolour and charcoal

A wonderful artist who had such a short life. However, Schiele makes you believe that he lived every minute to the full. His self-portraits, of which there are so many, are mature and confident. I do think he spent a long time studying himself in the mirror – he knew how to draw every inch of himself – literally. There is no pretence – what you see is what you get and I think it’s superb! The lines and angles describe his seemingly undernourished frame, and the facial expression has such intensity. He says “here I am – like it or lump it!”






Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, 1912.:

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, 1912




This portrait of Schiele is striking for its composition. He has still gone for the tall, skinny look but of the canvas and not himself – however, I think this choice is just an extension of the self-portrait. It says, I don’t have to paint all of me to show my whole self. There is more colour in this painting, yet it has a transparency that makes you think you can see through his skin. There is a vulnerability here, but only because he wants you to see it.










Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)

self portrait, Paul Cézanne, 1880:

self-portrait, Paul Cézanne, 1880


From other images of Cezanne, he did appear to be a little stern with little time for the lighter side of life other than his appreciation of the natural world around him. Here, he’s shown himself looking content and full of health. Maybe he was just in a good mood that day? He seems to be enjoying life.









Cezanne - Self-Portrait with Palette c.1890:

Cezanne – Self-Portrait with Palette c.1890


Finally, a self-portrait depicting the artist at work! This is self-portrait that has the look of being made by someone else. Cezanne appears absorbed by his painting. The palette hasn’t changed very much, in fact nothing appears to have changed very much. I actually don’t think there is any hidden message to the world except for, this is me and this is what I do. I love the colours Cezanne uses and his brush strokes are descriptive. Another reason I chose him is because I came across  a portrait of him by another artist and will look at comparisons later.






Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Self portrait, 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German 1880-1938):

Self portrait, 1913 by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German 1880-1938)




This  is the kind of self-portrait I wish I had the courage to paint. Kirchner has gone for likeness, character and impact rather than realistic accuracy. This image tells you so much about him, he’s an artist, he’s an expressionist, yes he smokes, he’s pretty cool! His use of colour is striking, as is the composition – he’s got all he needs in the frame, no more no less.









Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Self-portrait, 1925-26, Oil on canvas.:

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Self-portrait, 1925-26, Oil on canvas



This is a very different approach. It’s still stylish, more abstract yet strangely, more accurate. The palette isn’t overly different, pink still dominates, but the tones are simplified and flattened. It says that he’s moved on and evolved – there will be more to come.








Chuck Close (1940- )

amazing talent! this is a painting! learn more about the artist: Chuck Close:

Chuck Close – Big Self-Portrait 1967-68

This acrylic painting is very large and based on a photograph of himself. It took around a year to complete. Again, nothing to do with vanity, this image says this is me, so? However, the very scale, time taken, accuracy and skill says more about the artist than the image. I’m not usually a fan of photorealism (whatever that is), however, the skill involved and the sheer determination and patience must be admired. I wanted to show the path this artist has taken in his style of painting over the decades. Much is made of Close’s “face blindness” – a condition I can’t even imagine – this, it’s said is the reason for the many self-portraits and portraits that he makes.



Self Portrait-Chuck Close (interestingly, this artist has "face blindness", a disorder in which he cannot recognize faces. He paints portraits in order to help him remember even his own face):

Chuck Close Self-Portrait, 2008 Oil on Canvas


What a difference! This is still extremely realistic and accurate but composed of pattern and colour. Almost as if viewed through a patterned glass window but not completely distorted. I can imagine that if viewed from the correct distance the pattern would just “disappear” and the brain would make everything real again. Is he trying to fool the brain or the eyes? Is he trying to put across what it feels like not to completely understand and recognise the face?





If possible, compare your chosen self-portraits with portraits of the same sitter by other artists. What does this tell you?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Portrait of Cezanne (PORTRAIT DE CÉZANNE), 1880. Pastel on paper, 53.7 x 43.5 cm. Private Collection.:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) Portrait of Cezanne (PORTRAIT DE CÉZANNE), 1880. Pastel on paper, 53.7 x 43.5 cm

Out of the artists chosen above, this Cezanne is the only one I could find had been painted by another artist. This pastel portrait is by Renoir and is absolutely beautiful. I have to say, the comparison is very close. The actual features and demeanour of Cezanne are pretty much identical to each other. Renoir’s handling of the subject is a little softer and there are less colours added into the flesh and of course, it is pastel rather than oil. It takes a little thinking about that, Cezanne’s self-portrait would be a mirror image and Renoir, would be seeing the actual model, so they are actually drawing a similar view.

This comparison tells me that Cezanne, painted what he saw, not his impression of his own image – it also tells me that observed and separated the perception from the reality. Other than that, Renoir had the same illusions?!

Drawing Figures – Project: Self Portrait


Research Point

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.

I decided to avoid the most obvious self portraits (although many are favourites eg Rembrandt, van Gogh, Degas etc),  if there is such a thing, and looked for well-known artists that come to mind a little further down the list so to speak.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) – Mexico City

A fascinating life and many self portraits.  Frida Kahlo loaded her paintings with symbolism and story

Research Point Self Portraits Frida Kahlo - Self Portrait

Research Point
Self Portraits
Frida Kahlo – Self Portrait

telling.  I think she very much captured the essence of herself, not only in her features but in adding the relevant narrative for that specific time in her life’s story.  I watched a documentary about her some months ago, this followed her life, loves and tragedies which can be read throughout her self portraits.  Recovering from a horrendous traffic accident as a teenager, she had many months of recuperation and was never fully free of pain afterwards.  Therefore, she had nothing but her painting and, confined to bed, probably no other subject than herself.

She also depicted, sometimes quite graphically, her inability to carry her three pregnancies to full term due to her injuries. Not shy of describing her conditions and personal tragedies as a woman, she was revered by feminists for her illustrative candour.  Her life ended at the age of 47 in 1954 but had spanned many turbulent and transitional world events politically, artistically and religiously.  Religion and her Mexican culture played a large part in her life and therefore, her paintings.  If anyone truly painted themselves, it was Frida Kahlo.

Research Point Self Portraits Frida Kahlo - The Broken Column

Research Point
Self Portraits
Frida Kahlo – The Broken Column

I chose Kahlo because of the extra narrative she brought to her self portraits, the symbolism is rife within them and I can not begin to imagine how to use that in my own work.  I hope that over time, I can find such a personal voice to demonstrate feelings, emotions and beliefs in such a way that they inject more life and meaning into my images.








Egon Schiele (1890 – 1918)

Another prolific painter of the self-portrait, Egon Shiele was way ahead of his time in my humble opinion.  A few adjectives and phrases come to mind: stunning, expressive, disturbing, flexible, explicit, innovative, graphic, contortionist, self-aware, uninhibited…

Research Point Self Portraits Egon Schiele - Self Portrait

Research Point
Self Portraits
Egon Schiele – Self Portrait

Research Point Self Portraits Egon Schiele - Self Portrait

Research Point
Self Portraits
Egon Schiele – Self Portrait











Schiele was mentored by Gustav Klimt and his influence is sometimes clear, yet he has a very distinctive style of his own.  Exaggerating his own skinny physique with strong, jagged line and knobbly joints, Schiele manages to produce wonderfully twisted and expressive poses.  How on earth he managed to do this I don’t know – multiple mirrors, memory, a multitude of sketches?  However he did it, his work is unmistakable.  The facial expressions are numerous and vivid – I can’t imagine how he managed keep his expression and reproduce it at the same time.

His untimely death at the age of 28 leaves one wondering what he would have gone on to do had he lived longer.

Onto my supposedly lesser known artists and their self portraits.  I had whittled my list down to four:  Bryan Lewis Saunders, Paula Modensohn-Becker, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Kathe Kollwitz.  For the purpose of this research point I’ve decided to go from the sublime to the ridiculous with no insult or pre-judgement intended, so it’s Kathe Kollwitz and Bryan Lewis Saunders.

Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945)
(Käthe Kollwitz. [Internet]. 2014. The website. Available from:äthe-kollwitz-37900 [Accessed 29 Sep 2014].
Supporting information from Wikipedia:

A quick introduction:
Kathe Kollwitz was a German draughtsman, painter and sculptor born in Kalinigrad, Russia formally known as Konigsberg, East Prussia 1867.  She studied at art schools for women in Berlin and Munich.  she excelled drawing working people and studies of the human condition.  I have to admit, I didn’t know of this artist until discussing self portraits at my life drawing class and her name came up.  I have researched some of her drawings and her self portraits are simply brilliant.  Again, a very expressive style with an abundance of emotion and feeling encased in her mark making.

Self Portraits Research Point Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait 1898

Self Portraits
Research Point
Kathe Kollwitz – Self Portrait 1898

Self Portraits Research Point Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait 1910

Self Portraits
Research Point
Kathe Kollwitz – Self Portrait 1910

Self Portraits Research Point Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait 1938

Self Portraits
Research Point
Kathe Kollwitz – Self Portrait 1938

Self Portraits Research Point Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait 1924

Self Portraits
Research Point
Kathe Kollwitz – Self Portrait 1924





















A selection of self portraits spanning 40 years.  The likeness is always there, with the added life experience clearly depicted.  I especially like the 1924 charcoal drawing on tinted paper, such an economic style but speaks volumes.

Bryan Lewis Saunders

A quirky choice which I described as ridiculous earlier.  This is not to be derogatory regarding his skill and style but maybe could have referred to his methods of one particular self-portrait series.  Saunders another prolific self portraitist, has, since 1995, made it a mission to complete at least one self-portrait per day until his end – over 8000 so far.  He has many hardback sketchbooks dedicated to this task and his drawings take many guises not least the “Under the Influence” series.  In this series, Saunders took a different drug, prescriptive or otherwise each day, and drew himself under the influence.  Not a method I’d recommend, even in my non-medical capacity, I can see this just maybe detrimental to one’s health.  In fact the artist himself admits it wasn’t ideal considering he did damage his brain to a recoverable degree, although he says he’s still continuing the experiment but not so intensively – each to their own.  I have attached a link to his website, as I’m not sure copyright would allow me to reproduce the images on my blog.  I have to say, some of them are very eye-catching and expressive, but then I probably would have expected that.  Here are the titles of those that particularly caught my eye (this is not a shopping list):

1 sm glass of “real” absinth
Bathsalts (?????)
1 “bump” of Crystal meth (can’t believe I’m typing this!)
20mg Valium
2mg Xanax

I did wonder, though, how much the intoxication actually influenced the drawing and how much was a, however subconscious, pre-conceived image.  Some are very obviously, out there and floating!  However the inspiration was attained, there is a clear likeness running through the images, even the more abstract and/or expressive ones.  From the recipe list above, my favourites are Bathsalts and PCP.

To be fair, some of his portraits were as a result of medication given in the ER for kidney stones.  Maybe I should do a sketch directly after my multi-vitamin in the morning!?