Rembrandt. Self Portrait, 1640.


Rembrandt. Self Portrait, 1669.


Vincent van Gogh.
Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889.



Frida Kahlo.
Self Portrait with Monkey, 1938.



Though Dürer is credited for being the first artist to consistently create self-portraits, Rembrandt is given credit for being the first artist to intensely study the self through art. During his life time, 1606-1669, Rembrandt sketched his own face thousands of times. He created a legacy of 60 self-portraits that depict his history, an autobiographical story that chronicles his turbulent life. From rags to riches, through marriages and mistresses, from youth to old age, we can witness the changing face of Rembrandt.

His first self-portrait is dated as early as 1629; his last, a few months before his death in 1669. Between those forty years Rembrandt modeled for himself so many times that we can't help but wonder why. There seems to be several advantages for Rembrandt to turn to the mirror for inspiration. One notion suggests that as a young and struggling artist, Rembrandt was the most readily available model. He could paint himself anytime, anywhere without having to pay or rely on a professional model. Another reason for the multitude of self-portraits may lie in the typical clientele of the time. Rembrandt often painted his own face deep in the shadows or with grimacing expressions, techniques that he certainly could not explore on the portrait of a wealthy client. Kelly noted that for Rembrandt, "self-portraits became an outlet for feelings and ideas concerning the nature of human existence which found no satisfactory channel elsewhere." In this case, his own face provided a wide range of opportunity for growth and discovery as an artist.

Janson summed up Rembrandt's use of the self-portraits well when he wrote that "...his view of himself reflects every stage of his inner development - experimental in the Leyden years; theatrically disguised in the 1630's; frank and self-analytical toward the end of his life, ... yet full of simple dignity." The self-portraits of his last two decades show that Rembrandt was beyond using himself as a model out of convenience, and past using his face to test new techniques. It is in these last two decades that a real exploration of self comes forth. We see a much more honest view of Rembrandt's features in his later work than in his famous Self-Portrait, from 1640. In his final self-portraits dated from 1660 to 1669, Rembrandt appears old, wrinkled, and tired. Glancing in the mirror, Rembrandt said of these final portraits, "...and I came, it may be, to look for myself and recognize myself. What have I found? Death painted I see..."

Vincent van Gogh is as famous for his self-portraits as is Rembrandt, though instead of creating them over a life time, he painted the majority, twenty-two of them, within two tumultuous years. Van Gogh's images during that period (1886-1888) and for the two years before his suicide in 1890 reveal a man who was struggling with life, and perhaps searching for answers through his painted image. Each painted portrait captures detailed emotions of shock, disturbance, tranquillity or confusion. He even captured his own image, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Head, (1889) after his infamous mutilation of his ear. In it he appears troubled and somewhat dazed. He appears to be lost within himself, isolated, a sign of how his tragic life would ultimately end.

Like Rembrandt and van Gogh, the story of Frida Kahlo can be read in her self-portraits. Approximately one-third of her work is the exploration of her self, physically and mentally. Kahlo created some fifty-five self-portraits as a kind of therapy to face the most troubling events of her life; her leg crippled from polio, permanent injuries from a bus accident, abortions, and botched surgeries. In person, Kahlo dressed in long, rich fabrics and covered herself in jewelry, she hid her deformities beneath an austere persona. In her portraits she could come out from hiding and reveal her troubles in paint. In that sense, her self-portraits are both tragic and triumphant. Just as Rembrandt could look at himself in the mirror at the end of his life and accept his aging body and face, Kahlo could accept and feel comfortable revealing her afflictions. But unlike Vincent van Gogh who searched for an answers in his self-portraits, Frida Kahlo knew the answers. She used the canvas as a cathartic release of emotion.