The History of Self-Portraits

HISTORY OF ART • THE TIMELINE OF SELF-PORTRAITS

written by Emerson Rose Craig


It is believed that 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.
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Paintings are a way for painters to express the world they see, placing that image on canvas to immortalise 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

It is believed that self-portraits have a long history that tracks back to the Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans. The author of The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, art historian James 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.

As an example, Hall gives the illustration of 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 birth of Self-Portraiture

Inspired by Ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras' statement that "Man is the measure of all things", the Renaissance in the 15th century saw the emergence of Individualism.

This movement emphasised the importance of the individual in society and of being one's own person, reaffirming the worth and power of human beings.


Many other art critics state that it was the Renaissance that brought about the birth of self-portraiture. It was also around this time when mirrors were perfected, and they therefore became a useful tool for artists as they enabled them to see themselves clearly. The intellectual, social and technological revolutions naturally led to a rise in the creation of self-portraits.

Many of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance created self-portraits regularly. These artists include Gustave Courbet, Edward Munch, Leonardo da Vinci, Joshua Reynolds, and Rembrandt.

Why Rembrandt’s self-portraits are important ?

During his life, Rembrandt created almost one hundred self-portraits, over forty of which were paintings, marking the artist who has one of the most prolific self-portrait collections. Through this collection, 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.

“In a way, the self-portraits are what make Rembrandt famous rather than his art,” says the art historian James Hall in his book book The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. “His early self-portrait prints are sent all over the place, so everyone would have known what he looked like even if they’d never seen another work by Rembrandt. As an independent artist, not a court artist, he had to make more of an effort to put himself on the map. Making a self-portrait suggests that you are already famous even if you’re not.”

This self-portrait collection records Rembrandt’s changing features over four decades. They trace his life and career from ambitious young artist, through the confident and successful painter of the 1630s and 1640s to the aged, troubled master of his late years.

While Rembrandt himself is believed to may have been inspired by the great 16th-century Venetian painter Titian, his self-portraits have gone on to inspire generations of artists over the last 350 years, like Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Goya and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

REMBRANDT AND SASKIA, 1635

REMBRANDT AND SASKIA, 1635

REMBRANDT   Self-portrait,   1699

REMBRANDT Self-portrait, 1699

Self-Portraits reflecting psychology

Since the rise in popularity of self-portraits, there have been many different styles, from realism to symbolism.

After Rembrandt, an emerging concept and style in self-portraits was to reflect psychology 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.

Frida Kahlo’s 1939 oil painting “The Two Fridas.” Credit All Rights Reserved 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo’s 1939 oil painting “The Two Fridas.” Credit All Rights Reserved 2016 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear  (detail; 1889), Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy The Courtauld Gallery, London

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (detail; 1889), Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy The Courtauld Gallery, London

René Magritte,  Son of Man , 1964. © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

René Magritte, Son of Man, 1964. © Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The surrealist self

With the invention of the camera and film photography, artists were no longer working to create realistic images of the world around them because the camera could capture it perfectly. This idea 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.

This idea of not needing to paint an exact replica of self to create a self-portrait was pushed forward by the surrealist movement. René Magritte was at the forefront of the surrealist movement 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. 

Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman

Challenging the concept of the self-portrait

Self-portraiture in the twentieth century has been many things as modern art brought artists, playing 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 a way, modern self-portraits 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.


If you have liked reading this, continue reading The Self-Portrait vs. The Selfie , about photographic self-portraits, and what differentiates them from selfies.