I started by watching a programme that I had taped when it was on BBC 4 in 2010 Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits presented by the Observer Art Critic Laura Cumming. There are a few video clips here.
Art critic Laura Cumming takes a journey through more than five centuries of self-portraits and finds out how the greatest names in western art transformed themselves into their own masterpieces.
The film argues that self-portraits are a unique form of art, one that always reveals the truth of how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be known to the world.
Why does an artist choose to paint a self-portrait?
An interesting question that I pondered over. Is it to show their skills at getting a likeness? To explore some inner turmoil? How the artist wanted to be seen by the world long after they were gone or even just as basic as having a willing model available whenever they wanted.
Most famous artist have painted at least one self-portrait during their lifetime – Vincent van Gogh left over 30 and Rembrandt over 90.
I remember listening to a programme on Radio 4 quite a few years ago about Rembrandt’s self portraits. When an artist does a self portrait looking in a mirror it’s not as others see them but obviously a mirror image of themselves, so really they should look at any self portrait they do in another mirror to really see themnselves as others do.
I find this self-portrait by Albrecht Durer mesmerising as I think most people would. It is dated 1500 and is inscribed
‘Thus I, Albrecht Durer from Nuremburg, painted myself with indelible colours at the age of 28 years’.
We will never know why he chose to paint himself like this which is an unmistakably ‘Christ’ like pose. Was it to acknowledge that God had made man in his own image and that artistic talent is God given. When you see talent such as this you can’t disagree. I’ve not seen it for real only in photos but I get the feeling that you may have an almost spiritual experience when viewing it, his eyes look as if they are looking deep into your soul.
This self-portrait in the Royal Collection by Artemisia Gentileschi shows her in the process of painting. Her self portrait is the first by a woman to be included in a Royal Collection. At this time it was rare for a woman to be an artist.
Nearly 400 hundred years later this self portrait by Magi Hambling shows her surrounded by objects that are personal to her and with three arms to hold her three essentials of life, which are a cigarette, a drink and a paintbrush.
Vincent van Gogh wrote this to his brother Theo in 1888
“I purposely bought a mirror good enough to enable me to work from my image in default of a model, because if I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.”
and to Émile Bernard
“I strongly urge you to study portrait painting, do as many portraits as you can and don’t flag. We must win the public over later on by means of the portrait; in my opinion it is the thing of the future.”