Jean Fouquet. Self-Portrait, 1450.
Jean Fouquet's self-portrait (c. 1450), a small picture created in gold on black enamel, is
seen as "the earliest clearly identified self-portrait that is a separate painting, not an
incidental part of a larger work."
However, self-portraits are known to go back as far as the Amarna Period (c. 1365 B.C. ) of Ancient Egypt. Pharaoh Akhenaten's
chief sculptor Bak carved a portrait of himself and his wife Taheri out of stone. This is
significant because Bak and Taheri were not like the rich and powerful who could afford
the privilege of a portrait therefore the artist must have had another reason for creating
this work of art. Sean Kelly points out in his book" The Self-Portrait, A Modern
View, "while we know a number of self-portraits from the ancient world, we also know very
little about the psychological motivations which inspired them."
The Greek Sculptor Phidias, who created sculptures for the Parthenon, is legended to
have been jailed in 438 B.C. for leaving his signature, a small self-portrait of himself, on the
shield of Athena. His bald-head and wrinkled features were easily recognizable among
the idealized figures of the Greek heroes. The crime, it seems, was two-fold; the Parthenon
was not place for human representation, and a sculptor should not take credit for a work
of pure divinity.
Phidias was among the first of a succession of artists who would use their self-portrait as
a signature in significant works. Although many artists may have incorporated their image
into great works, it is not always easy to identify. And whether the artist's goal was to
sign his work or whether he simply used his image because he needed another face in the
crowd and did not have a model, is difficult to tell.
A self-portrait, as a projection of self, may have began with Fouquet's hand held portrait
but artists like Albrecht Dürer and Parmigianino are known for the detailed exploration
of their own images. They paint themselves as they wish to be seen. Other portrait artists
who also used the self-portrait as a projection of self did so to demonstrate wealth, social
status, talent or religious beliefs.
While Dürer and Parmigianino used the canvas to reflect their physical appearance, later
artists such as Rembrandt and van Gogh took the self-portrait to a deeper level.
Rembrandt created vast amounts of self-portraits through intensive self-study. Van Gogh wrote in a
letter to his brother, "In Rembrandt's portraits...it is more than nature, it is a kind of revelation."
Rembrandt's self-portraits delve deep into the psyche,
they show a complex personality, strong emotions, and a chronicle of circumstances
through life. One of the greatest examples of self-portrait as self study can be seen in the
work of Frida Kahlo. In approximately one-third of her work Kahlo used herself as the
main subject, creating a kind of therapy, struggling to make amends with personal
Rembrandt, van Gogh and later, Kahlo used facial expressions, distinct brush strokes and
lighting to portray their inner selves. Gustave Courbet, a leader in the Realist movement,
was known for using the element of fantasy in creating his self-portrait. In his most
famous work from 1855, Interior of My Studio, a Real Allegory Summing Up Seven
Years of My Life as an Artist, he enlists a host of props and people to help portray
himself. In the painting he sits at his canvas surrounded by hunters, peasants and other
representations of his life. There are several other self-portraits by Courbet where he
assumes other relevant fictitious roles.
Although Courbet uses fictitious scenes to depict his emotions, the images of himself are
always realistic interpretations. Artists like Chagall and Picasso, on the other hand,
created a different kind of image, the narrative self-portrait. In their works, the self acts as a
character and has little to no resemblance to their actual physical appearance. Picasso
once said, "Whether he likes it or not, man is the instrument of nature; it forces on him its
character and appearance." Chagall's I and the Village is a good
example of this kind of self-portrait, where he relives the visions of his childhood.
The narrative self-portrait, though an abstraction of the figure, still contains human
figures. The metaphorical self-portrait on the other hand is more of an "autobiographical
outpouring". Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko's abstract paintings may
require interpretation by the artists to know for sure if their intentions are a self-portrayal
or not. Because these works are highly affective one can't help but view them as
representations of the artists' emotions. "The fact that a lot of people break down and
cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate these basic human
emotions...," Rothko was quoted as saying.
English sculptor Henry Moore took an inventive approach in his self-portrait when he opted to draw his hands instead of his
All of these artists gazed into their mirrors and attempted to grasp their identities. They
sought to portray their image, whether it showed a clear representation of their features, a
walk through their childhood or an outpouring of emotions. Some self-portraits show
only what the artist wants us to see, some chronicle the history of the artist, others reveal
personal secrets and a sense of isolation. Whichever method is employed each artist took
a long literal and figurative look at him/herself. Each portrait is a an exploration of the self.