The Self-Indulgence of the Self-Portrait

The self-portrait: an frank insight into the soul of an artist or a web of lies?

Self-Portraits are the epicentre of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition: ‘Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, presenting early self-portraits by the artists side by side for the first time. Featured below: left, Rembrandt van Rijn, Sheet of Studies with Self-Portrait (detail), 1630-1634 and right, Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait (detail), c. 1855-1857:

With the mass production of improved glass mirrors, the Early Renaissance in the mid-15th century saw a wave of self-portraits amongst painters, sculptors, and printmakers alike. A range of self-depictions were produced, from the humble sketch to extravagant biblical scenes, featuring, you guessed it, themselves. Francisco de Zurbarán’s 17th century painting Saint Luke as a Painter before Christ on the Cross is widely believed to picture himself as St Luke:

It is said that self-portraiture requires a great deal of artistic skill and self-awareness, while exposing one’s own vulnerabilities as both an artist and subject. But how accurate were these self-portraits?

I don’t claim any validity in comparing such a practice in the 15th century to today – photography means there is less need to spend months and years nurturing pictorial evidence of one’s own appearance for the sake of PR.

But producing such work in the 21st century would likely bring about accusations of self-obsession or even criticism for stretching the truth of our own good looks – was this really much different in the 15th century? The temptation to adjust the odd flaw must remain rife in such a practice – a slightly smaller nose or an eradicated mole can be yours at the mere flick of a brush.

Art critics have noted that a trait common to female self-portraits is that they are featured in much smarter attire than they would probably actually be painting in, perhaps indicating some deviance from the mirror image they saw before them. For example, this is a self-portrait by Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils 1785 – would you want to splash your watercolours on that finery?

Self-portraits also range to the rather more controversial, such as those of Egon Schiele’s collection of self-depictions, which have led to countless medical diagnoses of his mental and sexual health. By this measure, self-portraits are more than paintings; they also provide insight into the artists themselves.

However, reminiscent of the Facebook profile picture (blasphemous!), self-portraits are, and have always been, what the artist wants us to see of them.  This is what they would like us to perceive of their personality and character, which by human nature is likely to differ from who they actually were.

Self-portraits provide a fascinating angle on a work of art.  We can undoubtedly take a lot more from a self-portrait than we can from one man’s portrait of another, but can we really believe what they convey?

For more information about the exhibition, please visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.  For  high quality ebooks about Schiele, Degas and a host of other legendary artists, visit ebook-gallery.com.

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