The current ubiquity of self-portraits — which has increased exponentially with the selfie explosion — makes it hard to imagine a time when artists may not have made any, let alone dozens. So central are they to our appreciation of an artist that we feel bereft without one — hence our obsession with discovering a self-portrait by, say, Leonardo da Vinci.
Exhibitions of Old and Modern Masters often begin with a self-portrait, or a room full of them, even if they were made late in an artist’s career. The distorted chronology gives the impression that the first thing a budding artist does is create a self-portrait, as though learning to walk and talk.
Albrecht Durer (1471–1528), The Bathhouse, circa 1496–97. Woodcut on laid paper with an Imperial Orb watermark. Block and sheet: 390 × 281 mm., A fine early impression (Meder a-b) Ursula & R. Stanley Johnson Family Collection, Chicago
A youthful drawing of the first prolific self-portraitist, Albrecht Dürer — in which he is seen side on, mysteriously pointing — endorses this impression. He later inscribed it for the family archive: ‘This I drew myself from a mirror in the year 1484, when I was still a child.’ It is his earliest surviving drawing, probably made when he was 12.
One imagines, however, that the haunting painting of 1500 — which is also the focus of contemporary photographer Thomas Struth’s Alte Pinakothek, Self Portrait (2000) — was the image he wanted to be judged and remembered by. Stylish and darkly sensual, he confronts us head on and imperturbable, like Christ the Redeemer on a catwalk. It was displayed in the city hall of Nuremberg, with a contrasting portrait of his elderly mother.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–1669), Self-Portrait with Saskia, 1936. Etching on laid paper with a Strasbourg Lily watermark. Sheet: 103 × 94 mm. A fine impression of New Hollstein’s first state (of four). Collection Therese Oulton
A century after Dürer, Rembrandt would mount a sustained challenge to the convention that the self-portrait should give a consistent, idealising image of the artist. He lived in an age when patrons and collectors wanted a self-portrait of favoured artists to place alongside their other works, and his self-portraits all found buyers. Like an actor, he makes regular costume and scene changes, and tries out different hairstyles and facial expressions. His self-portraits advertise and echo the characters found in his paintings and prints. The ‘autograph’ feature we hang onto is that bulbous root-vegetable nose, surmounted by melancholic frown lines.
INTERVIEWIn conversation with Thomas StruthRead more
Rembrandt’s final self-portrait was acquired by Cosimo III de’ Medici, the future Grand Duke of Tuscany, who twice visited the elderly artist’s Amsterdam studio while making a grand tour of Europe. He bought it for the Medici collection of painted self-portraits, the first dedicated collection of its kind, now numbering some 1,600 works. The collection was, however, still predicated on the single ‘definitive’ self-portrait, preferably painted at an artist’s creative peak.
This emphasis changed during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, when self-portraits began to be seen as markers tracking the evolution of an artist’s life and art. Painters such as Goya, Courbet, Van Gogh, Corinth, Munch, Schiele and Bonnard painted numerous self-portraits of often embarrassing candour and intimacy. Courbet wrote: ‘I have done a good many self-portraits in my life, as my attitude gradually changed. One could say I have written my autobiography.’
Lucian Freud (1922–2011), Self Portrait, 1969-70. Oil on canvas. 7 2/5 × 53/5 in. (18.8 × 14.3 cm.) Private Collection / Bridgeman Images
Lucian Freud’s Self-Portrait (1969–70) extends this tradition. It was painted after Freud had come to blows with a taxi driver, and the aggressive cropping of the head at the mouth suggests the artist has been shocked into speechlessness. Freud’s nose was in fact ramrod-straight, and this is how it is depicted in his earliest self-portraits when he was the so-called ‘Ingres of Existentialism’. In the later self-portraits it is, as here, warped like a boxer’s nose. It recalls Rodin’s bust The Man with the Broken Nose (1863–64), which itself evoked melancholy portraits of Michelangelo, whose nose was broken in a youthful fight with another artist. Freud’s punky self-portrait establishes him as a beleaguered, unvarnished outsider — and a survivor.
In the 20th century, many artists rejected the romantic idea of the self-portrait as revelatory, and the face as prime bearer of meaning. The contrast is evident in the Struth photograph, a study in enigmatic anonymity. Whereas Dürer is focused, centred, frontal and fixed, ‘Struth’ is a blurred marginal fragment seen from the back, decapitated by cropping. Dürer was famous for his sartorial elegance and beautiful hands, and his long fingers are a conspicuous feature of his picture; Struth wears a crumpled jacket and his hand is tensely buried within his trouser pocket. At the same time, however, there is freedom from typecasting in anonymity and concealment. As the philosopher Nietzsche once wrote, ‘every profound spirit needs a mask’.
The exhibition Reflections on the Self, Christie’s Mayfair, until 5 September
James Hall’s The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History is published by Thames & Hudson