The History of Self-Portraits


written by Emerson Rose Craig

Self-portraits have a long history that tracks back to the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greek and Romans. But the idea of self-portraits that we think of today, originated in middle ages.

Paintings are a way for painters to express the world they see, placing that image on canvas to immortalize that vision. Self-portraits turn this outer look inward. In John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, when looking at the artist Rembrandt’s self-portraits, he says, “He had to see himself as a painter in a way that denied the seeing of a painter. This meant that he saw himself doing something that nobody else could foresee”. Self-Portraits turned the eye onto the painter, displaying them to the world.

St Dunstan praying before Christ. The text reads  Dunstanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere, Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas (Remember, I beg you, merciful Christ, to protect Dunstan, and do not permit the storms of the underworld to swallow me up)

St Dunstan praying before Christ. The text reads Dunstanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere, Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas(Remember, I beg you, merciful Christ, to protect Dunstan, and do not permit the storms of the underworld to swallow me up)

The pursuit of Self-Perfection in the Middle Ages

St Dunstan praying before Christ. The text reads "Dunstanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere, Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas": Remember, I beg you, merciful Christ, to protect Dunstan, and do not permit the storms of the underworld to swallow me up.

Self-Portraits have a long history that tracks back to the Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans. But the idea of self-portraits, that we think of today, originated in the Middle Ages. In James Hall’s book The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, Hall traces back the origins of the self-portrait to St. Dunstan from 908-88 AD. This was an era where images were primarily created for religious purposes, but Hall argues that it is during this time that the pursuit of self-perfection in art was born.

The birth of Self-Portraiture

Many other art critics say that it was the Renaissance that brought about the birth of self-portraiture. This is supported by the concept of Individualism, which was born during the Renaissance in the year 1500 AD. This was a turn to being an individual in society and looking at yourself as your own person. It was also around this time that the art of creating mirrors was perfected, making it even easier for people to physically see themselves clearly. Mirrors became a useful tool for artists and saw the rise in the creation of self-portraits.

Since the rise in popularity of self-portraits, there have been many different styles, from realism to symbolism. Many of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance created self-portraits regularly. These artists include Gustave Courbet, Edward Munch, Leonardo da Vinci, Harmenszoon van Rijn, Joshua Reynolds, and Rembrandt. During his life, Rembrandt created almost one hundred self-portraits, over forty of which were paintings. Through this work, the viewer is given an interesting perspective of the artist. The viewer does not only get to see Rembrandt change over time but also gets to see how he views himself as he ages. John Berger points out that the difference in how Rembrandt perceived himself changes drastically if you compare his early self-portraits to ones painted later in life. A painting Rembrandt created at the age of 28 shows off a smiling face as well as his new wife, a stark contrast compared to a sad and lonely image he painted of himself 30 years later. Self-portraits were a window directly into the way artists viewed themselves.



REMBRANDT   Self-portrait,   1699

REMBRANDT Self-portrait, 1699

Self-Portraits reflecting psychology

An emerging concept and style in self-portraits was to look at the psychology of the artist through the painting. Prominent painters of this style were Frida Kahlo and Vincent Van Gogh. Frida Kahlo was primarily known for her self-portraits that used incredible symbolism to show her mental state. She painted over 55 self-portraits during her life, each imbued with heavy symbolism such as the plants, animals, bones, and organs. These gave a more in-depth look at her life and the feelings she had during the time she was painting. In his 30 self-portraits, Vincent Van Gogh allowed the viewers of his paintings a glimpse into his mind. Within the eyes notably, you can see sadness, tiredness, and even resignation. The more willing an artist became to step away from realism into symbolic, surrealist, and expressionistic styles, the more the mind of the painter is revealed. This was heavily encouraged by the invention of the camera. With the invention of the camera, artist were no longer working to create realistic images of the world around them because the camera could capture it perfectly. This freed artists to turn to feelings to portray the world in new ways, and this, of course, included themselves. Capturing themselves in a self-portrait was more about representing the inner self rather than a perfect rendition of the outer self.

The surrealist Self

This idea of not needing to paint an exact replica of self to create a self-portrait was pushed forward by the surrealist movement. Rene Magritte was at the forefront of this with his work, known for its whimsy, which is easy to see in his self-portrait titled “Son of Man.” Painted in 1946, it depicts a man standing with a green apple covering his face. Magritte explains the piece by saying:

"There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present."

As self-portraits have progressed away from the Renaissance style, of capturing the face of the painter, and turned to symbolism, self-portraits have begun to look at the entire body, trying to capture the whole of the self.

Challenging the concept of the Self-Portrait

As art moved into the modern era, artists play with what a self-portrait is supposed to be.  Artist Cindy Sherman has been a pioneer of this, entering the New York art scene in the 1980’s. She plays with the very idea of a self-portrait by making herself the subject of almost all of her photography pieces but changing her sense of self by using outlandish costumes and makeup to become other than what she is. This move puts into question if her work can be called a self-portrait if she is playing a character. Her exploration allows her to play with the idea of self and give in to discovering identity rather than confirming one. Her work shows a side of what a self-portrait can be while maintaining separation, as she puts it, “I am not revealing myself.”

In this way, artists now comply with Friedrich Nietzsche’s prediction in The Birth of Tragedy “entire symbols of the body would be called into play” for a “new world of symbols.