The self-portrait: intimate truths

In Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits, last night on BBC4, Laura Cumming, the Observer art critic, presented an absorbing survey of the self-portrait.  She began with Durer’s compelling study of himself in 1500, aged 28, Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (above).  Durer was the first European artist to produce a self-portrait. That alone is remarkable, but in total Durer created at least ten: three paintings, a watercolour and around six drawings, including the portrait of himself at age 13 (below).  Laura Cumming began by recalling the personal significance for her of Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe:

One summer of my childhood was spent in bed with measles. A family friend braved the quarantine bearing what she called her portable museum, dozens of old master postcards in a shoebox. Among the many portraits were some that stood out, having that intensity about the eyes that even a child recognises as the sign of a self-portrait; one was this Dürer. Too modern to have been painted so long ago, too vital to be trapped behind ancient varnish, the picture captivated me with its coldly glowing stare. It made me aware for the first time that people in paintings could be as exciting as people in life, that art could be as powerful as reality.

‘The self-portrait is quite unlike any other form of art, for it reveals the most intimate truths’

In her film Laura Cumming argued that self-portraits are a unique form of art – one that reveals the truth of how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by the world. The self-portrait has a ‘special look of looking’: the artist looks into our eyes with an intense gaze – though, of course, the artist is looking not at us, but at his own image in the mirror.  Cummings examined self-portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Courbet, Messerschmidt,  Warhol and Wallinger, tracing the development of the genre.  I’ve chosen some highlights here.

Raphael: Self-Portrait 1506

Tintoretto: Self-Portrait c. 1546

‘He was an insomniac, painting through the night – note the pink-rimmed eyes.

Rembrandt: Self-portrait as a Young Man, 1629 (age 23)

Rembrandt: Self Portrait 1659 (age 53)

Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1661 (age 55)

Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1669 (age 63)

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638

Head tilting, body kiltering, Gentileschi rises to the creative moment like an action painter three centuries in advance. She could have shown herself sedately doing nothing, like most women before her. Instead she embodies her own legend as the most celebrated female artist of her time. Gentileschi wastes no time on eye contact, on social introductions, but gets straight down to work: a painter of strong women, a strong woman painter.

Jacques-Louis David, Self-Portrait, 1784

David is oppressively alone, not quite recognising himself immediately or completely in the mirror. There is a trace of bewilderment, even grievance and one imagines he has lost all sense of the brush and palette he grips so tightly. Imprisoned for his association with Robespierre in the French Revolution, David is literally in solitary confinement.

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889

A Starry Night in daytime, dazzling yet solemn, this is Van Gogh’s final self-portrait. He is of a piece with his own painting, speaking of himself in the same language he uses for fir trees and stars. The artist never quite explained how his colour effects should work, but the strange outcome of so much blue radiance here is uplifting calm. Sane and free of self-pity: the opposite of Van Gogh as clichéd martyr.

Laura Knight: Self-Portrait,1913

Laura Cumming explained that this painting was a first for a woman artist, showing Laura Knight with a nude model (fellow artist Ella Naper was the model).

Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 1985

Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 2002

Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993

Lucian Freud casts a cold eye over his body in its mortal condition. Confronting his own reflection at 71, heavy workmen’s boots unlaced and flapping like the fetlocks of some hooved animal, he is a bare King Lear of the studio, a satyr or perhaps something more devilish. There is no reliance on the usual combination of pose, clothes and expression to put oneself across; identity emerges even naked. Whatever we are as human beings, we are infinitely more than our bodies. Freud brandishes his palette knife like a baton – maestro, subject and audience of his own solo performance.


4 thoughts on “The self-portrait: intimate truths

  1. Oh how I wish I could have seen that TV Programme. Here in the States the thing I miss most about England is our brill television. I hope it comes out on DVD or gets aired over here. We saw the Durer portrait in the Louvre on summer hols in June and loved it, hair envy!! It was painted for his betrothal apparently.

  2. I was disappointed in the programme – an hour and a half was too long and in the end it was a bit superficial – or felt it anyway!

  3. I was not aware of the programme and I am glad I stumbled on your post. Good one.

    I was wondering: did it say for a fact that Durer was the first artist to devote a painting entirely to his own figure? Was it counting out “inserted portraits” such as Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi? The first self-portrait may well be Jan van Eyck’s Man in a turban (1433!), if that is indeed him.

    (I started a page on self-portraits, that’s why I am so keen to know…)

    1. To answer your question – I can’t be sure without being able to see the programme again. This web page ( says: ‘While Dürer was not the first artist to produce a self-portrait, he can be arguably claimed to be the first artist that returned to this subject matter throughout his career.’

      Wikipedia says, ‘ Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck of 1433 may well be the earliest known panel self-portrait’, citing Lorne Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues: The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, pp 212-17.

      What seems clear is that it was at this point in the mid-15th century that artists began to paint self portraits and identify them as such – before that, it seems, they may have painted themselves as part of a picture of another subject. The birth of individualism!

      I like your new blog, btw, and will follow it with interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.