RESEARCH Artists’ Self Portraits


From the sixteenth century artists like Leonardo da Vinci have been painting self-portraits. To see a whole range of self-portraits through the ages, take a look at the Modern Met’s link.

Self-portraits are created for many reasons, to show us the artist or what the artist wants the viewer to see; sometimes they show wealth, their state of mind or chosen characteristics and sometimes they hold up a mirror to society and show that too, even if it’s not pretty. The key point is that what is represented is very much dictated by the artist, it is what they have chosen to represent, it is not random.


Rembrandt is one of the most prolific self-portraitists throughout art history, having made close to one hundred self-portraits. Not only was it great practice but a phenomenal record of the aging process,  encompassing facial features and clothing and also expressions.

His earlier works focused on image and dress his later works were more contemplative and perhaps revealing of his personality and mind.

Some are considered to be tronies which were head and shoulder works where the sitter plays a role or wears an expression and were very popular at the time.

Some suggest they are autobiographical reflecting other aspects of his life, as in Self-Portrait, 1659, his expression perhaps reflecting on his prior financial problems.

Watch this video to show his self-portraits in chronological order to see the changing face of Rembrandt.


Another artist who painted himself a lot was Van Gogh. He managed to convey his changing self and mind, with tremendous use of colour and brushstrokes to suggest his internal thoughts as well as his external appearance. His mental health challenges have been well documented but it is interesting to look through his self portraits chronologically to see the emotional and physical changes in them. You can look at some of his self portraits here. note the changing palette, and brushstrokes. 

Self-portraiture is a way to look at the interior aspects of ourselves and I suppose the challenge is in how honest you can be. None more brutally honest than the famous one where we see his bandaged ear, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear.


My tutor suggested I look at Otto Dix, and I was able to order a book from my local library. He painted realistic paintings, some reflecting the harsh brutalities of war and many reflecting the society he lived in. Dix became more expressionistic in style but was also influenced by Dadaism and realism. He was clearly affected by the first world war which he participated in and sought to challenge the government’s mythologizing of warfare through his work.

His portraits were not particularly flattering and his own self-portraits seem to be less harsh. Sometimes described as caricatures, his style was sometimes exaggerated but colour played a big part and this an be very powerful, how colour can change the mood.

He did a variety of self-portraits (here’s a link), using props such as flowers, an easel and many war related topics, as Mars, as a target and his artist’s palette. Some of which were allegorical.

When he painted other people he would refer directly to the model for the first drawing and first coat of paint but would complete it without their presence as he found it too complicated; he complained that he noticed more and more detail if the model was in front of him and believed it to be more accurate without He used a multi layered effect with transparent paint, achieving precision and intensity.

He believed that form and colour were very important to express individuality, spending time to get the tone of flesh right for individuals. He created tensions through his use of colour, especially in using contrasting colours and polar opposites. His faces are perhaps the key to understanding the characteristics of his portraits’ sitters. See Brothel Madame, c. 1923, for the details of her face and heavy makeup.

In his later years he returned to painting self-portraits, one particular one of interest is Self-Portrait in Fur Cap against Winter Landscape, 1947. There is a clear interest in representing the fabric; the textures and patterns dominate the painting, the face and hands on this occasion being reduced in size and focus.

He continued to document his physical state in the later works of Self-Portrait after Stroke, and Self-Portrait as Skull.


Known for his angular expressionist style paintings and drawings, Schiele produced a lot of work in a short space of time, he died aged only twenty eight. Schiele turned the portrait style on its head, he pushed the limits and changed the nature of self-portraiture from here. His work would have been quite shocking in its time, he was courageous and uncompromising in his representations of humanity, in his aim to find truth. He wasn’t afraid to reveal all in a way that hadn’t been done before.

He was perhaps the first artist to really look inside of himself and represent this in his self-portraits rather than the outside flesh and muscles. In these works he looks elongated, emaciated and contorted, there is a tension and agitation here, set against an unusually blank background there is much emotion to his works. The balance between positive and negative space heightens the intensity. There is also a sexual intensity which is revealing and occasionally uncomfortable for the viewer.

His nude self-portraits often showed twisted limbs, in uncomfortable postures, legs splayed,  see Seated Male Nude (Self Portrait), 1910. His feet are cut off and his hands tightly bound, and his eyes are red. He often drew himself as ugly, unattractive, with exaggerated poses,  playing around with emotions and characteristics. Looking through his works, his eyes are penetrating, intensely staring out at the viewer.

His career was brief yet he created over two thousand drawings. Apart from the obviously erotic themes, he came to convey his sitters’ thoughts and emotions.


Sometimes associated with the school of London, Auerbach is one of the most significant post-war figurative painters. Known for his thick layers of paint in muted colours, his almost disjointed, scribbly style seems impenetrable at times. If you want to see quite how thickly he painted layers onto the canvas, check out this video clip here, we can almost touch them and imagine what they would feel like. This makes us feel closer to the artwork and the subject matter.

Interestingly Auerbach preferred to really know his sitters well in order to draw them and painted many of them for years. This probably adds a different dimension to the work, especially for the artist. This leads to the question, how well do you need to know your sitter to get a good drawing.

His technique was often to paint over repeatedly what he had already worked on but in later years  he came to scrape the paint off before completely starting over again. Whilst the finished work was finished quickly, he had already painted it many times before the final version.

The idea of an image forming from something unclear is very appealing, perhaps it is the challenge of finding the image and details within for yourself, where suggestion is key. I like the idea that from chaos comes order.

See Self-Portrait, 1958, and Frank Auerbach, 1994 – 2001, he only painted five self-portraits.


A great friend of Auerbach. and, according to the Tate Gallery, one of the foremost portraitists of the twentieth century. His figurative style is well recognised. He painted in a realistic way yet distorted the anatomy a little, exaggerating features.

Freud’s self-portraits which are figurative and expressive and there’s a lot of them. It’s always interesting to look at a body of works to see the progression. People often say his work is stark and discomfiting but I think they are honest and intimate with all the different shades and textures of skin in reality, perhaps it is the nudity which offends or the way that he conveys vulnerability. Most interesting is that he painted his models from life so there is a real energy and multi-coloured expression of colour and strokes which creates rhythms and tensions. He was driven by close observation of his subjects, every aspect of them is scrutinised and reproduced and exaggerated in glorious colour. In his search for truth he is unsparing in his depictions of human flesh. The colours he uses for flesh tones are a little jarring, yellows, greens and greys give an unusual colour aspect to flesh but it’s not unappealing, it seems to work. Paint is layered on thickly. He does not attempt to beautify his sitters, in fact the opposite is probably true, and because we are not focusing on the exterior it allows us to look for the interior, psychological qualities.

Freud was a very private person so it’s only reasonable that people look to his paintings for an understanding of the artist. As he painted friends and family it offers a peek into his relationships.

His compositions are simple but intense and are focused on the individual, these are not the idealised portraits of earlier centuries but intimate, sometimes discomfiting views of real people, himself included. His self portraits are the same, some of which are seen here. 

One of his most famous works is Reflection (Self-portrait) (1985), he is full faced, staring out to the viewer, confidently challenging us. He once famously said that all paintings were autobiographical and all were a portrait.


I’ve mentioned Hockney before on my blog but I am a fan of his famous joiner creations so I am including this here for consideration. See his joiner self-portrait here. It’s a different way of getting across multiple views and yet also has a narrative.

I also found a collage self-portrait of his, his Self-Portrait from 1954, which I rather like too, with the newspaper background and the bright colours. Hockney made multiple self-portraits and I discovered a blog which features many of them, it’s well worth a look through. We are able to see the development from his early drawings and paintings to his newer iPad and iPhone creations.

I don’t think Hockney has any other intent than to record his own likeness in a honest way.


Emin might be best known for her My Bed, 1998; having seen it in the Tate Liverpool,  I was struck by how much information was contained within the installation. In a different way, I did feel like I was getting a sense of who Tracey Emin is and got a taste of some of her life experience. The very personal nature of her work does connect, we are able to relate to the bed because we all sleep in one, and we experience life from it.

Her work is provocative and revealing so it would be fair to suggest that we already know quite a lot about her. She is known for her confessional technique, and I do wonder how long this will interest people. She’s not afraid to reveal everything about herself, is completely honest about the most intimate of things, I’m just not sure I want to see it all!

She is perhaps more interesting for the techniques she has created in which to tell her own narrative, the bed with its surrounding detritus of her life, the list of lovers, intimate revelations about her life. She has created new ways to show herself to the viewer.

She seems to be a fearless producer of art going to extremes to create. In 1996 she locked herself in an art gallery to paint for a fortnight, naked and battling her demons with paint. The whole room and art works can be viewed as an installation, another form of autobiography, see Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made. The style is overt with bold, rapidly drawn images, which are typically emotional and raw.

Her bronze Death Mask, 2002, is another device to reveal something about herself. death masks were often viewed as confessional in nature, believed to reveal something about the person who died.

In revealing her own personal emotions and identity, like a visual diary, Emin connects with universal themes that are relatable to everyone. She uses conceptualism to convey her own philosophy and political views. She is completely and utterly absorbed in her self and her self-portraits reflect this.


Susan Fegley Osmond, January 2000, Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits

Eva Karcher, 2oo2, Dix, Taschen, London

Jane Kallir, 2003, Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolours, Thames and Hudson

Nicholas Wroe, 16 May 2015, Frank Auerbach: Painting is the Most Marvellous Activity Humans have Invented, The Guardian

Mark Hudson, 17 February 2012, Lucian Freud: ‘He Just Had One Idea in Life, to Paint’, The Telegraph













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