Research point: Self-portraits

We are to find five or six self-portraits that appeal to us, if possible that cover a broad time span and range of painting techniques.     Does the artist portray himself / herself as an artist?  What is the purpose of the self-portrait?  What impression is the artist trying to convey?  What impression is actually conveyed?   See if you can compare chosen self-portaits with portraits of the same sitter by other artists, what does this comparison tell you?

The first portrait that came to mind when thinking of this exercise was Lucian Freud’s 1985 unflinching head and shoulders study:

Lucian Freud. Self-Portrait (Reflection) 1985

The development of his work throughout the decades is fascinating, it has always been intensely personal and fraught with introspection.   Most of his paintings are not easy on the eye and most are sombre, sometimes outright gloomy, ugly and despondent.   I have looked at many websites devoted to displaying his work but I think the Royal Academy site (credited below), which discusses the self-portrait exhibition held recently, provides really clear insights into his mindset throughout his career insofar as his portraiture is concerned.  It is interesting to also compare his self-portraits done in his prime with those painted near the end of his life, where his brushstrokes are jagged and the image roughly realised and broken down into raw elements.

Lucian Freud. Self-Portait (Reflection) 2003/2004

I featured the work of Helene Schjerfbeck previously.  Another female artist who was said to be a pioneer as far as painting herself in the nude is concerned, was German artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker.   I cannot feature all the work here that I would like to of Modersohn-Becker’s, I love the chunky solid women in her paintings, the deliberate de-glamorisation of the female body and obvious nod to Gauguin.  Her painting vision was so earthy and human.   This painting is one of several self-portraits she did in her short career, she has placed her hand protectively over her pregnant belly and stares with such strength and fortitude directly into the viewer’s gaze.  It is a tragedy that she died shortly after giving birth to her daughter.

Paula Modersohn-Becker ‘Self-portrait with two flowers’ 1907

As far as looking at portraits done of artists by other artists, I decided to choose Auguste Renoir’s Portrait of Bazille and Frederic Bazille’s Portrait of Renoir – both done in 1867. They use almost identical palettes, however their styles couldn’t be more different. Renoir chose to depict Bazille painting and included cameo landscapes in the portrait. Bazille, however painted Renoir in a manly pose, gazing steadfastly off to the side. He has treated Renoir’s hands with more detail than he has the face, that perhaps tells us something about how he felt about Renoir’s talents as a painter.

A really striking self-portrait that I came across in the book credited below (The Impressionists, by themselves) was that of Gustave Courbet, one of the finest of all artists as far as I’m concerned and should be a topic of a separate research post.

Gustave Courbet. The Desperate Man 1843

This painting was supposedly done during his ‘romantic’ period. Despite the title, I can’t help thinking he’s playing a trick here. Yes, it’s a confrontational pose and the man (Courbet) does look quite possibly off his rocker but there’s just the slightest hint of mockery coming through.

I don’t have one or five/six favourite self-portraits, there are hundreds of self-portraits that I could include here that have been influential over the years, not discounting all the familiar ones by Rembrandt, Titian, Van Gogh, Degas ec. etc. Cezanne painted himself many times and in most of them he always looks quite calm and comfortable. In this one, he seems to be saying, ‘look at me, I’m getting on in years but I know what I’m doing and you should pay attention!’.

Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait 1872


Wherever possible images are sourced from Bridgeman Education.

Lucian Freud
Paula Modersohn-Becker (Paula – extract from the movie – with English subtitles)

Howard, M. The Impressionists, by themselves. Published by Smithmark 1991. (book source for information relating to Renoir, Bazille, Cezanne and others)

Gustave Courbet – The Desperate Man information

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