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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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!”
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)
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.
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)
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.
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- )
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.
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?
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?!