What is a Self-Portrait? Definition, Tips, and Famous Self-Portraits
This entry was posted on June 22, 2023.
Portraiture has always been a popular and important form of artmaking throughout the course of our visual art history. Art historians say this form of art started flourishing in ancient Egypt around five thousand years ago. We adore commissioning or customizing portraits to honor our family, pets, etc., and so we can confidently say it still thrives in the hands of modern-day artists.
If you are an art enthusiast, there is no doubt that you can name more than ten painted portraits by classic artists that went on to become their most celebrated works. Among these portrait names you have thought of, there is no doubt that there is at least one self-portrait.
When discussing portraits, it is impossible to go without understanding and analyzing what a self-portrait is and how they have played a tremendous role in the world's art history. This article attempts to do exactly the same, so read on to find out everything you need to know about self-portraits.
What is Self-Portrait Painting?
Self-portraiture is a kind of portrait just like an individual’s portrait paintings or family portraits. Like how family portraits belong to the group portrait type, self-portraits, with their popularity in the art world, have made themselves into a unique kind of traditional portraiture.
While self-portraits and individual portraits sound similar, they are two different types of portraiture. A portrait of an individual is one that an artist makes of someone else who probably commissioned them to do their portraits or of a deceased loved one. Self-portraits, however, are portrait paintings made by the artist of themself.
A self-portrait is simply a work of art made by an artist in which they portray themselves as the subject of the artwork. In other words, it is a curious custom that some artists follow to create a painting of themselves by choosing themselves as the subject of their new work of art.
Paintings self-portraits are an ancient practice. Many artists who painted in different styles and periods used to represent themselves in a painting how they see themselves. How curious and fascinating that is!
Art historians describe self-portraits as a way artists used to understand and explore themselves. Artists used it to better understand their identity, emotions, and physical appearance. They believe that artists must have used self-portraits as a medium to express their self-awareness.
Self-portrait paintings usually can range from realistic depictions of the artist's face and body to more abstract or symbolic representations based on the general art style of the artist. Artists have used various mediums, including oils, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal, and pencil, to make their self-portraits throughout history.
Nowadays, there are also artists that have attempted to paint self-portraits using the medium of digital art. Some classic painters and other artists who tried self-portraiture during their active years include Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Pablo Picasso.
Why Are Self-Portraits Important In History?
In this day and age, thinking about an artist attempting to paint a self-portrait may seem quite weird and even narcissistic. With the advancement of technology, we now have no need to document someone’s or our own’s face through a painting, let alone through a self-portrait. Photographs can do that job for us, so why get involved in such a curious custom?
But this was not the case back in the day. There was no other way for artists to document how they looked. If it were not self-portrait paintings or sculptures, we would have no idea how some of our favorites looked!
Some reasons self-portraits are very important in history are as follows:
Self-portraits provide a visual record of what our favorite historical figures looked like. If it were not for some self-portraits, we would have never known what our favorite artists looked like, their physical characteristics, their general style, or what the fashion was like for those who lived in their era.
If it was not for the self-portraits done by Da Vinci and Picasso, we might have never known what these classic painters looked like in real life.
2. Insights Into the Artists' Lives
Self-portraits are a great medium to give us insights into the personal lives of our favorite artists. Some of them can even communicate to us their experiences and emotions. Artists often use self-portraits to reveal their inner thoughts, feelings, and struggles, allowing us to understand them better as artists as well as individuals.
3. Reflection on Cultural and Societal Norms
Self-portraits are a great medium to understand the cultural and societal norms that existed at the time when they got created. For example, self-portraits made by women artists can reveal a lot about the societal constraints and gender roles that existed during their time.
4. Study of artistic techniques
Self-portraits, without a doubt, are a great medium to provide insights into an artist's style and technique. While their other works can also give us abundant details about their artistic styles, self-portraits can make us understand if an artist likes sticking to their usual style or can experiment with other styles and art techniques.
Thus self-portraits are a great way to understand the artistic development and evolution of any artist. Self-portraits are significant historical artifacts that provide us with a wealth of information about the artists who created them and the society and culture in which they lived.
The Most Famous Self-Portraits In History
In this section, we will look through the most famous self-portraits created throughout art history. All of the below-mentioned self-portraits are ones that played a significant role in giving us insights into the life of the particular artists that created them. They also revealed much about the social life that existed during the periods they were made.
Below is a list of some self-portraits created throughout the years that went on to become masterpieces.
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) - Jan Van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the oldest self-portraits, painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434. The portrait has all the elements of a typical painting done during the Renaissance Era.
Source: My Modern Net
From the picture of the painting, you may have already noticed how it does not look like a traditional self-portrait. In fact, with a single look at it, you may argue that it is a double portrait and not in any way a self-portrait. It comes off as a simple painting by Jan Van Eyck of a wealthy Italian merchant, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, standing with his wife, Costanza Trenta, and their dog.
But, if you look at the painting closely, you will notice how the artist has sneakily included his reflection in the convex mirror present at the center of the painting. This is the reason why Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait is often considered a self-portrait.
Source: My Modern Net
This unique detail in the painting is what made it so popular as a self-portrait. The Arnolfini Portrait is thus a work that reflects how brilliant of an artist Eyck was. The Arnolfini Portrait now permanently hangs in London’s National Gallery.
Self-Portrait at 28 (1500) - Albrecht Durer
When discussing self-portraits and the most popular ones by artists throughout history, it is impossible to go without mentioning Albrecht Durer, the German artist. He has created several self-portraits throughout his art career. Among them, the most famous one that now has the status of a masterpiece is Self-Portrait at 28.
Source: My Modern Net
Albrecht Durer, throughout his career, not only painted self-portraits but also created highly detailed etchings, woodcuts, and engravings, some of which are still very popular, especially among art enthusiasts.
His Self-Portrait at 28, which he completed in 1500, became so popular because he portrayed himself in a way similar to the depiction of Christ in various religious mediums. Art historians believe that such a portrayal by Durer of himself is to indicate how his talents are God-given.
Self-Portrait at 28 now permanently resides at Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich, Germany.
Portrait of A Man In Red Chalk - Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most popular and celebrated artists of all time who created many masterpieces like the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, etc. One such masterpiece that lets us know what this classic painter looked like is his self-portrait, Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk.
Source: Tiger Moon
This Italian Renaissance artist likely created this famous self-portrait of his in the early 16th century, approximately around 1512. Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk, also sometimes known as Portrait of a Florentine Nobleman, depicts Da Vinci in three-quarter view, with his head slightly turned to the left and his eyes gazing off into the distance.
Da Vinci gave himself a dark robe in the painting matched with a fur collar and cap. The artist has beautifully rendered his facial features in the painting by using delicate lines and shading to create a sense of depth and three-dimensionality.
Art historians believe that Leonardo da Vinci used red chalk to draw his self-portrait to give it a warm, soft quality, a characteristic feature of all his paintings. Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk now permanently hangs in the Royal Library at Turin.
Self-Portrait (1660) - Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch Baroque painter and printmaker who was active during the Dutch Golden Age. He is one of those artists who created the most self-portraits throughout his art career. Rembrandt seems to have painted over 90 self-portraits during his different years.
Source: My Modern Net
The Self-Portrait, which he drew in 1660, is an oil painting that captures his use of light, a somber color palette, and brushstrokes. These are all his signature painting techniques that one can notice in most of his art pieces. This famous self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijin now hangs in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Self-Portrait as The Allegory of Painting - Artemisia Gentileschi
Among the many artists that created self-portraits, the name of the notable female artist Artemisia Gentileschi must be mentioned. This Italian Baroque painter, one of the few female painters of the time, had a fruitful career, especially with the help of her father, Oration, who was also an artist.
Source: Daily Art Magazine
In Self-Portrait as The Allegory of Painting, Artemisia depicts herself as a person standing confidently facing the easel, holding a palette and a brush in her hand. We viewers can see how her gaze is focused on the blank canvas before her, completely lost in the act of creation.
The most striking aspect of Artemisia's self-portrait is how she presents herself. She depicts herself as a painter, a creator, and an innovator, completely immersed in the work she is so passionate about. By doing so, Gentileschi subverted the usual system of presenting women with fantastical figures as the allegory of painting.
Through her painting, Self-Portrait as The Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi asserts her place in the male-dominated world of art. Her work shows how women, too, can be artists of great skill and vision and that painting is not just a pastime or hobby but a serious and noble pursuit.
Las Meninas (1656) - Diego Velazquez
Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez is another unique and peculiar self-portrait like the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck. With one look, we cannot say that it is a self-portrait, but Velazquez has carefully placed himself in the painting, making it one.
Source: My Modern Net
Diego Velazquez, the Spanish Golden Age painter, completed one of his masterpieces, Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting), which portrays Madrid’s royal court in 1656. For someone unaware of how Diego Velazquez looks, the painting will seem like any other portrait depicting a Spanish royal family.
At one glance, it looks like a painting of Princess Margarita Treasa and her handmaids dressed in elaborate, eye-catching, antique costumes, along with their dog and some other noblemen in the back. Velazquez carefully placed himself as the court painter in the back of Infanta Margarita. We can see him standing next to a huge canvas, holding his palette and brushes.
Source: My Modern Net
This inclusion of himself in the painting by the notable Baroque period artist made it a masterpiece self-portrait. Las Meninas is now a part of the permanent painting collection of Museo Nacional del Prado.
The Desperate Man (1843)- Gustave Courbet
The most iconic among the 26 self-portraits by Gustave Courbet is his 1845 painting, The Desperate Man. The painting depicts Courbet with his head in his hands, appearing to be in a state of deep distress or despair, as the name of the painting suggests.
Courbet is known for his realistic style and his willingness to depict the less glamorous aspects of life through his works. His self-portraits, especially, The Desperate Man, are also no different. The depiction of emotional intensity and raw, truthful portrayal of human suffering through The Desperate Man is why it is a masterpiece.
Source: My Modern Net
Some art historians speculate that Gustave Courbet made the painting after his younger sister, Juliette, died of tuberculosis in 1844. Some others suggest that it portrays the artist’s struggles with depression and despair.
The Desperate Man is not only his best self-portrait but is also one of Courbet's most potent works. The painting is now a powerful and striking example of 19th-century French Realism because of its emotional content and expressive use of color and brushwork.
Self-portrait with a Beret - Claude Monet
Claude Monet, the French painter and the founder of the French impressionist movement, also did a self-portrait during his active years. His work, Self-Portrait with a Beret, which he completed in 1886, is a rare self-portrait from Monet.
Source: My Modern Net
In the painting, we can see Monet wearing a black beret and a dark coat, with his face slightly inclined to the left. Monet is known for using broken brushstrokes in his art pieces, and you can also notice that he followed the same art style in his self-portrait.
In his work, Self-Portrait with a Beret, Monet has expertly rendered a balance between light and dark using blurred and broken brushstrokes. The compositional use of unpainted areas in the canvas only makes this rendition better.
Self-Portrait - Paul Cezanne
Paul Cezanne, the French Post-impressionist painter, also experimented with self-portraiture during his active years. The artist is commonly known for his paintings that feature mountainous landscapes and still life paintings that play with perspective. He also, at times, drew portraits that weren’t as acclaimed as his other works, and some of them included self-portraits.
Source: My Modern Net
One such work that is now one of his masterpieces is Self-Portrait which he completed from 1878 through 1880. In the painting, we can see the brushwork clearly with bold, loose strokes that create a unique texture and depth on the canvas. Paul Cezanne is famous for his unique use of color, and this self-portrait is no different.
Self-Portrait by Paul Cezanne now hangs in the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Self-Portrait With Halo and Snake - Paul Gaugin
Paul Gauguin, the French Post-Impressionist artist, created one of his many self-portraits, Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake, in 1889. Of the 40 self-portraits he made during his active years, this oil-on-wood painting is his most famous one. The careful use of vivid colors to include an underlying religious theme in the self-portrait and its avante-garde composition makes it one of Gaugin’s masterpieces.
Source: My Modern Net
In ‘Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake’, Gauguin has given himself a halo above his head and a snake wrapped around his neck to portray himself as a spiritual leader or a religious figure.
This self-portrait by Gaugin is full of symbolism. The halo above Gauguin's head, as we know, is a traditional Christian symbol of divinity, but art historians have always wondered what the addition of the snake means in the painting.
In some cultures and religions, the snake symbolizes evil, while in some others, it represents wisdom and rebirth. Art historians are yet to figure out what Gauguin intended by incorporating the snake in Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake. Many believe that Gaugin being a person interested in the religious beliefs of other cultures, was trying to incorporate elements of non-Christian spirituality into this painting.
Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake now resides in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Vincent Van Gogh
Irrespective of whether you are an art enthusiast or not, the chances that you are very familiar with the name Vincent Van Gogh are very high. You may definitely have come across his paintings like ‘The Starry Night’ and one of his 35 self-portraits. One self-portrait now considered one of his masterpieces is the Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, completed in 1889.
Source: My Modern Net
Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch painter and one of the forefathers of the modern art movement, experimented with self-portraiture throughout his active years on numerous occasions. A number of his self-portraits, other than Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, are now considered as iconic paintings of all time. These include Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, Self-Portrait as a Painter, etc.
Van Gogh drew Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear shortly after the infamous incident of him cutting his ear off after an argument with Paul Gaugin. One can see his bandaged ear in the painting, wrapped in white cloth. It seems as if Van Gogh, in a blue coat and green scarf, is directly staring at us viewers with a solemn expression on his face.
Vincent Van Gogh is an artist who suffered from depression and anxiety. Art Historians believe that his act of cutting his ear off may have been a result of a mental breakdown. Another self-portrait by Van Gogh, Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, also features his bandaged ear, which he completed in the same year as the former.
Self-Portrait with a Palette - Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso, one of the most famous Spanish artists and one of the world-renowned classic painters of all time, drew 14 self-portraits. He drew them in different stages of his life from age 15 to 90, most of which were simply titled Self-Portrait. Picasso drew each of these portraits in different styles, almost showing his evolution as an artist.
Source: Pablo Picasso.org
One of his 14 self-portraits that became the most famous is his 1907 painting, Self-Portrait with a Palette. In this self-portrait, Picasso depicts himself as a young man wearing a blue jacket and a red scarf. Picasso, in the painting, holds a palette in his left hand and a brush in his right, suggesting that he is in the act of painting.
He gave himself a distorted, fragmented face with angular lines and disjointed features. His use of bold brushstrokes, vivid colors, and distorted features is a signature of the artist's Cubist style.
Picasso's self-portraits, as mentioned above, give us an idea of his evolution as an artist. They reflected his evolving sense of self, from a young and ambitious artist to a more mature and reflective artist.
Tips To Help You Draw A Perfect Self-Portrait!
If you are looking to try your luck in self-portraiture, here are some general steps and tips that you can follow. They can help you create the perfect self-portrait you have wanted to make for a long time!
1. Set Up a Mirror or Choose a Good Picture Of Yours To Use As a Reference
You may feel like you know yourself and all your facial features well to draw a self-portrait without using a reference. But it is still best to use a mirror or a picture of yours as a reference to ensure you get all the details right, especially if you want to make a realistic portrait.
a. Using a mirror as the reference
If you are setting up a mirror, angle it perfectly in a position that helps you view yourself in the pose that you are using in the drawing. You have to make sure that this pose is comfortable for you as you will have to spend a considerable amount of time maintaining it.
You will have to spend a lot of time analyzing yourself in the mirror, holding the pose that you are using in your self-portrait. In fact, you will have to keep your eyes on the mirror for almost 80% of the time as you draw, studying your pose and features of yourself in the mirror.
b. Using a picture as the reference
Using a picture as your reference for your self-portrait is more recommended way than using a mirror. This way, you can avoid any complications of slight variations in your pose or position of the mirror.
Source: SkillShare Blog
You have to choose a perfect picture of yourself that has good lighting which shows your face and all its features well. It is better if the image you choose has a plain background with an almost even distribution of light throughout the face.
If you don’t have a picture like that, it will be best to take one that can act as a great reference photo. You have to stand against a plain background that seems to help make all your facial features pop out. Pose for the photo and adjust the camera angle so the light only shadows your face as desired.
It’s best to use top lighting or have the light source above you while you take a picture that is to be used as the reference for your self-portrait. This is the best way to ensure your picture has perfect lighting, which can help you a considerable deal when you are working on your self-portrait.
2. Set Up The Canvas And Start With a Light Sketch
Once you are ready to start with your self-portrait, set up the canvas and position the reference picture or mirror near it. Once you are done setting up the canvas and have equipped yourself with all the necessary art supplies, it is time for you to start drawing.
Start with a light outline, sketching the proportions of your face onto the canvas without any detailing. It’s best to also outline major features like the nose, eyes, and mouth too, along with outlining the basic shape of your face. You can use a light pencil to help keep your lines loose and sketchy.
Starting with a light sketch can help you align and position all the features to avoid any mistakes when you start adding details. It is easier to erase the light outlines as they won’t leave any marks and affect the minute details that you will be working on later.
3. Blur The Edges and Add Shadows
Once you feel like you have the proportions in the light sketch, you can start working on the outlines to make it darker and give more details. You can do this until you are satisfied with the shape of your face in the self-portrait.
Once you are finished with it, you can begin to blur the edges, which can give the self-portrait a more natural and softer look. You can use tools like a blending stump or even your finger to smudge and blur the edges gently.
Source: Artists and Illustrators
Next, you can add shadows to the portrait to make it as realistic as possible. You must observe your reference well to understand the lighting and find shadows. After figuring out where the shadows must fall, you can use a smudging tool or even your fingers to draw the shadows.
This can help blend whatever medium you use, whether pastel, charcoal, or graphite. The shadows made this way are lighter, so it is easy to erase them in case you make any mistakes while marking them.
4. Work On The Hairline
It is essential for you to know when to do the hairline while drawing a self-portrait. This is a tricky aspect of drawing a self-portrait. While trying to draw the hairline, you need to remember to begin at the head and then work outwards so that you can get the right hair length.
You can achieve thick hair for your portrait by making use of thick lines. Once that is done, you can proceed to add shadows and highlights to your hair in the self-portrait to get the desired volume.
While drawing a self-portrait, one should not forget that the outline comes first. You should only start working on the hairline and sketching it after you finish the outline and the other steps preceding this one.
5. Time to go into the details
It is the addition of fine details that would make your self-portrait stand out from the others and give it a realistic look. However, it is vital that you take your time to get to this part. You must only add the fine details to your self-portrait after finishing the outline, adding shadows, and sketching the headline.
Filling is an important step that is needed to make your portrait look more life-like. Filling the eyes and lips with slight shading as well as adding more shadow to the neck area, would give your painting a three-dimensional feel. If you do not shadow the neck portion, your portrait may feel like it is that of a floating head.
Once you finish adding all the necessary fine details, you will notice how your self-portrait has a very life-like feeling.
6. Choose A Great Frame For Your Portrait
Once you get the satisfaction of completing your self-portrait, you can proceed to choose a great frame to decorate your artwork the way it deserves. Here are a few suggestions to help you choose the right frame for your self-portrait.
1. Minimalist Frame: A simple black or white frame can give your self-portrait a simplistic yet classy look. Such a frame can allow your portrait to stand out where you hung or placed it without any distractions.
2. Vintage Frame: A vintage frame is an excellent idea for your self-portrait, especially if you want to give it an old-fashioned look. One example of a vintage frame is to use a wooden frame with intricate carvings that can add character to your portrait.
Source: PNG Wing
3. Ornate Frame: Ornate frame is a perfect choice if you want to add a touch of elegance to your self-portrait. Your self-portrait can look beautiful if you give it a gold or silver frame with intricate designs and patterns.
Source: Adobe Stock
4. Natural Frame: A unique frame idea for your self-portrait is to use a piece of driftwood or a branch to frame your image. This can give a rustic and natural feeling to your portrait.
To conclude, self-portraiture is a fascinating and dynamic art form that allows artists to explore their identity and creativity. Whether you are an artist or simply appreciate art, self-portraits offer a glimpse into the minds and souls of the artists who created them.
This article has tried exploring what self-portraits are, along with providing a list of the most famous self-portraits throughout history and some tips as to how you can draw one. Hope you find the article helpful in providing you with every detail you were looking for regarding self-portraits.
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