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Before the Selfie: The Self-Portrait

From weekend amateurs to the great masters, nearly all artists have used their own image as the subject of a painting. Artist’s self-portraits can reveal interesting and complex ideas about character and persona, as well as providing the artist with an ever-present subject to paint. Self-portraits were made by artists since the earliest times, but with the advent of better and more affordable mirrors in the 15th century, artists during the Renaissance began to depict themselves as the main subject or as part of a larger composition. Parmigianino, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian all painted themselves, Michelangelo most famously in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

In the 17th century, Rembrandt painted many self-portraits, exploring the subject in depth through printmaking. Rembrandt painted himself in front of a mirror at least forty times, and created thirty-two etched self-portraits. Rembrandt’s printmaking allowed him to explore the physiognomy of human emotion through the study of his own face, details of which he would then use for his religious and historical paintings.


Above top: Lot 19: Franz Kline, Self-Portrait (1945), Above: Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone-sill (1639); Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume (1638)

Women artists have been prolific self-portraitists. Due in large part to the fact that until the early 20th century women were not allowed to train with nude models, many significant women artists specialized in portraiture, including self-portraits. French painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was an eminent painter of self-portraits, making thirty-seven known works over the course of her career. American painter Mary Cassatt specialized in portraiture of women and children, painting herself only two times. Frida Kahlo made some of the most striking and expressive self-portraits, symbolically representing her life-long physical and emotional suffering. Through self-portraits, women artists were able to express the female experience in a way that distinguished them from male self-portraiture. It is no surprise that women artists painted themselves most often in the act of painting or in the dress of an artist, visually proclaiming their profession.


Above: Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Self-Portrait (1790); Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940); Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878)

Vincent Van Gogh was perhaps the most prolific of the Modern self-portrait painters, painting himself more than forty-three times. In the same way as Kahlo, Van Gogh used his self-portraits to express his personal suffering and social alienation. Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann and Edvard Munch all explored their characters and the ethos of the self-portrait in their work, as did Pablo Picasso, whose self-portraits reveal his complex personality and struggles in his personal life.


Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait (1887); Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait (1917)

Contemporary artists continue to pursue the self-portrait. Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, David Hockney and Francis Bacon are just a few artists who have explored the contemporary self-portrait, some referencing classical portraiture and others pushing the envelope of what a self-portrait is and what it can reveal.


Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait (1964); Chuck Close, Self-Portrait (2002-2003)

Photography revolutionized portraiture in the 19th century and allowed anyone with a camera to make a self-portrait. The first photographic self-portrait was made by Robert Cornelius in 1839. Painters and photographers have used photography to make self-portraits, including Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, Ernst Kirchner and Edward Curtis.

Robert Cornelius (1839)

The ultimate self-portrait is, of course, the ubiquitous selfie. Now part of our shared lexicon, the selfie is a 21st Century invention. It was only in 2013 that the word ‘selfie’ was included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The pen-ultimate selfie is the Space Selfie taken by an astronaut. Created over five hundred years apart, it is not difficult to see the connection between Michelangelo’s face as Saint Bartholomew floating on the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel and the face of a spacesuit-clad astronaut floating above earth.


Michelangelo, The Last Judgment (1534 -1541); NASA, Space-selfie (2013)

The 20th Century, Modern & Contemporary Fine Art auction on June 2 includes several interesting self-portraits, including: top row: Lot 18, Lot 20; below: Lot 182


Also of interest are portraits of artists by other artists. Top row: Lot 186, Lot 28; bottom row: Lot 68, Lot 185


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