What Artists Reveal with Self-Portraits

9 May 2013

When I walk through a museum or gallery, there are certain paintings that I breeze past and others that always draw me in. Self-portraits definitely fall into the latter category. I’m always intrigued by how artists choose to represent themselves and perpetuate their own personal mythologies.

My World by Daniel Graves oil on linen, 59 x 49 3/8, 2010.
My World by Daniel Graves
oil on linen, 59 x 49 3/8, 2010.

Images courtesy Eleanor Ettinger Gallery.
Homage to Gretchen Rogers by Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso, oil on linen, 16 x 12, 2010.
Homage to Gretchen Rogers
by Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso,
oil on linen, 16 x 12, 2010
.

True, a self-portrait at its most basic is a simple likeness. Historically, in fact, artists used self-portraits as a kind of calling card, attesting to their ability to capture a likeness and giving a sense of their capabilities. And, yes, self-portraits are convenient exercises because the model is always available and works for free. But a self-portrait can evoke and reveal much more when taken beyond the bounds of straightforward exercise.

Mertz Self-Portrait by John Morra oil on canvas, 28 x 40, 2010.
Mertz Self-Portrait by John Morra
oil on canvas, 28 x 40, 2010.

In many self-portraits, the artist’s status can come into play. Centuries ago, Diego Velázquez famously depicted himself as an accomplished, courtly, and knighted painter situated among royalty in Las Meninas, raising both his status and the status of the practice of art. Contemporary artist Daniel Graves riffs on the theme in a more subdued way in his self-portrait titled My World. Graves stares confidently out at the viewer, gesturing emphatically with brush in hand. His surroundings are presumably his personal studio, where objects seem to signify the artist’s interest in classicism and his focus on the study of the human form and anatomy.

My Father's Son by Frank Arcuri, oil on linen, 14 x 12, 2010.
My Father's Son by Frank Arcuri,
oil on linen, 14 x 12, 2010.

John Morra’s Mertz Self-Portrait shows the artist as something of a humble tinkerer. The artist, dressed in a worn pullover sweatshirt, stands in the center of the composition, the ostensible focus of the painting. But on further study, it is the quirky objects surrounding Morra (many of which often appear in the artist’s signature still life paintings) that steal the show—quite possibly the artist’s intention.

Then there are those artists who use self-portraiture as a chance to take on a silly, somewhat self-deprecating persona, as Frank Arcuri does in his painting, My Father’s Son, in which the artist plays a bit of a class clown by pinching a paintbrush between his nose and upper lip. Or the artist can use the self-portrait as a way to honor and acknowledge a fellow artist. Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso’s Homage to Gretchen Rogers, the early-20th-century American artist, does just that.

In Hunter Eddy’s Self-Portrait, a darker set of emotions is explored. The artist positions himself directly in the foreground of the painting, bare-chested and starkly gazing out at the viewer. Self-doubt, uncertainty, and stoicism all seem to reside in his gaze. In much the same way, Dana Levin’s Max and Me shows Levin holding a small child (her firstborn) so close to her face that his head partially blocks our view of the artist, though her distant, somewhat vacant expression is still apparent.

Self-Portrait by Hunter Eddy oil on linen, 19 3/4 x 15 3/4, 2010.
Self-Portrait by Hunter Eddy
oil on linen, 19 3/4 x 15 3/4, 2010.
Max and Me by Dana Levin, oil on panel, 10 x 8, 2010.
Max and Me by Dana Levin,
oil on panel, 10 x 8, 2010.

 

Obviously, self-portraiture is an expressive outlet that can lead an artist down many different roads. But a successful self-portrait, like any other piece of art, starts with a meaningful, sincere idea from the artist. Self-expression isn’t any one thing. It can be geared toward a realistic depiction of your face and physicality, or less so. Most of all, artists need to push to design and imagine without limits, strengthening their own creative points of view. 

For inspiration and portrait painting tips from contemporary and past masters alike, take a look at the 2012 CD Collection of The Artist's Magazine. Enjoy!


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Comments

anname wrote
on 3 Jun 2010 10:53 AM

This is an outstanding article. Self-Portraits also catch my eye as well. Vincent van Gogh is one of my favorites.  His Self-Portraits conveyed true self presentation, shock, and you can see the disturbing look in his eyes.  

on 10 May 2013 10:01 AM

I do A LOT of self portraits. They kind of end up being like a visual journal for me. Or maybe I'm just really self-centered. I'm endlessly fascinated by portraits. Thanks for the article. http://www.kirstenbeitler.com/

jbqdgq wrote
on 11 May 2013 9:23 AM

Great article. I have a self portrait of myself on a beach painting a lighthouse. Two things significant. I love lighthouses and I love to paint. I am not a great painter but I love mixing paint and pushing it around the canvas. If the painting turns out good, that's a bonus. Either way I have had the joy of the doing.

JanellM wrote
on 13 May 2013 2:46 PM

Great article.  I have always loved looking at self portraits and think it is so interesting how an artist "sees" themselves.  The self portraits in museums always draw me in as well.