Painted in 1973, this masterful work by Wayne Thiebaud is exceedingly rare, as it represents one of a select few self-portraits ever painted by the artist and has remained in private hands since its creation. In Self-Portrait, the viewer is finally privileged to view the face of the artist himself, whose sugary confections have solidified his fame as one of the most iconic living artists of the postwar era. Set against a vast grey background, the artist is depicted in vigorous and lively strokes of the brush, his features painstakingly delineated in carefully modulated color. His gaze is locked and impenetrable, engaged in the intense task of looking while his lips are pursed in concentration, highlighted and edged in improbable color combinations of green, blue and yellow. One of the signatures of Thiebaud's brushwork--that he accidentally discovered and then brilliantly manipulated--is the effect of halation around the contour of an object or figure, in the pulsating effect of its edge when viewed in raking light. In Self-Portrait, these vibrant, colorful outlines are at full throttle; they lend a shimmering brilliance to the painting and call to mind the brilliant color harmonies of Matisse or van Gogh's vigorous and intoxicating brushstrokes.
As a result of Thiebaud's signature technique, the image seems to pulse with a lively, palpable energy and to glow as if lit from within. In fact, Thiebaud is quoted as saying, "I would like the painting to create its own light" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in J. Coplans, "Wayne Thiebaud: An Interview," Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, 1968, p. 32). The warmth and illumination radiated by the painting recalls the work of the Old Masters, most notably Rembrandt, whose portraits, through their use of light, conveyed the psychological intensity and inner life of their sitters. Thiebaud's Self-Portrait also recalls another great master of light, the American painter Edward Hopper, who as an artist was preoccupied with the light of different times of day, a fascination he shared with the Impressionists. Thiebaud shares other formal similarities with Hopper in his use of an expansive blank background that lends an ambiguity and isolation to his figures.
Thiebaud has frequently commented on how difficult he finds the task of rendering the human figure, saying it is the most important study there is and the most challenging. In 1962, the year of his first solo exhibit at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York, which brought him wide-ranging acclaim and commercial success, he was also concurrently making studies of the human figure. Just one year later, he set aside the still lives to devote himself entirely to the human form: "Actually, while I was doing still lives I was at the same time trying to do figures, but very unsuccessfully. I was doing them concurrent with my food paintings in 1962, but in 1963 I decided to concentrate on figures for awhile. I think an artist's capacity to handle the figure is a great test of his abilities" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in J. Coplans, ibid., 1968, p. 34).
Perhaps because he was so immersed in the object paintings, when Thiebaud began rendering the figure in earnest, the paintings seemed like a direct extension of the still lives. In both cases, Thiebaud sought to objectify as much as possible each object, often by placing it upon an empty white background, dramatically flooded with intense illumination. In the figure paintings, the scholar Pepe Karmel notes the use of seamless photographic paper used by fashion photographers, that, when lit by bright floodlights, provided a kind of blank, amorphous setting similar to Velazquez's portraits, or in the case of Edouard Manet, that acted as "a symbol of the alienation of the artist or intellectual without any place of his own in modern society" (P. Karmel, "The Lonely Crowd," Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Acquavella Gallery, New York, 2012, p. 47). As a result of his technique, Thiebaud's figures often appear remote and slightly unreal, devoid of any narrative clues. With the Self-Portrait, he limits the figure to itself, providing no details that might add to its understanding, which thereby adds a poignant sense of ambiguity to the work, not unlike the kind of isolation and melancholy experienced in Hopper's paintings.
In Self-Portrait, Thiebaud treats his own image as he would a still life and subjects it to the same harsh pictorial demands. As such, the Self-Portrait presents a unique challenge, a deeply personal painting that gets to the heart of the artist's work.
The genre of self-portraiture provided a unique challenge for the artist. As a subject, it is one of the most intriguing forms of self-representation, offering boundless art historical precedents for comparison. Whatever else an artist might create, self-portraits allow for more introspection and provide critical insight into the artist's process, perhaps revealing essential aspects of their character and inner self. Convention dictates that artists portray themselves with the tools of their trade. Self-portraits of Rembrandt and Velazquez display the artist with brush and palette, and Self-Portrait with an Easel by one of Thiebaud's most-beloved artists, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, displays the artist in front of his easel, wearing spectacles and measuring perspectival distance using his thumb and upturned brush. In Self-Portrait, Thiebaud strips the painting down to the bare essentials and stays true to his signature working method, so that the neutrality of the setting creates an altered state of reality that hints at the inner life of the artist himself.