Self-Portrait of the Artist

An untidy history of artists' representations of themselves in pretty much any form you can think of (painting & sculpture, poetry & prose, photo & film…) — updated every third day and open for suggestions.

Month: January, 2013

The first photographic portrait (and, incidentally, self-portrait).


This self-portrait was unearthed in 1975. At the back it said, “The first light Picture ever taken. 1839.”

Since no self-timer had yet been invented, Dutch-American photographer Robert Cornelius had to rush in front of the camera and stand still for about a minute in order to get in the very first daguerreotype portraying not just a normal human being, but the artist himself.


The artist…?


Convex mirrors (such as Parmigianino’s) became somewhat fashionable in the Renaissance.

This is probably the first, and certainly the most celebrated, to appear in a painting: the legendary Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, dated 1434.


I have uploaded the mirror in high resolution, so you can zoom in and see if you can tell whether one of the two figures in it (possibly the one with the red turban) is indeed Jan van Eyck.

He should look something like this–though his identity is disputed here too:


(Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a man in a chaperon [Self-portrait?], 1433)

The artist introduces himself.


The future master of Mannerism, Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola—later to be known as Parmigianino—painted this virtuosic Self-portrait in a convex mirror in 1524.

He hoped “that it might serve him as an introduction letter … to the professional art-makers” (Vasari, Le Vite).

Parmigianino was twenty-one. By the end of the century, the painting had changed hands several times, ranking a pope, a poet, a sculptor, an architect and an emperor amongst its owners.

The artist does three-for-one.


Norman Rockwell‘s Triple Self-Portrait (1960) pretty much does what it says.

Behind the humorous façade, however, lies a highly self-conscious painting. Famous self-portraits by Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Van Gogh appear. Three of the most popular genres of self-portraiture are represented alongside the ‘standard’ oil self-portrait: the study, the artist at work, the artist in the mirror.

Still, the artist himself remains elusive, his eyes concealed behind the reflection on his glasses.

Socrates’ beauty.

Though of course the greek philosopher Socrates did not leave us any writings, this description of himself in Xenophon’s Symposium V, 4-9 is the closest we get to a self-portrait.

In the dialogue, Socrates uses his ugliness to probe Critobulus’ unquestioned ideas of beauty. He thus puts to test the traditional concept of καλοκἀγαθία (kalokagathìa), which affirmed the correspondence between outer and inner beauty.

The “naturalism” of Socrates’ self-representation is clearly polemical.

Socrates (Louvre)

(Portrait of Socrates, Roman artwork from the first century, perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue by Lysippos.)

        Socrates asked: “Do you consider that the quality of beauty is confined to man, or is it to be found in other objects also? What is your belief on this point?”
“For my part – replied Critobulus – I consider it belongs alike to animals–the horse, the ox–and to many things inanimate: that is to say, a shield, a sword, a spear are often beautiful.”
“How is it possible that things, in no respect resembling one another, should each and all be beautiful?”
“Of course it is, God bless me! if well constructed by the hand of man to suit the sort of work for which we got them, or if naturally adapted to satisfy some want, the things in either case are beautiful.”
“Can you tell me, then, what need is satisfied by our eyes?”
“Clearly, the need of vision.”
“If so, my eyes are proved at once to be more beautiful than yours.”
“How so?”
“Because yours can only see just straight in front of them, whereas mine are prominent and so projecting, they can see aslant.”
“And amongst all animals, you will tell us that the crab has loveliest eyes? Is that your statement?”
“Decidedly, the creature has. And all the more so, since for strength and toughness its eyes by nature are the best constructed.”
“Well, let that pass. To come to our two noses, which is the more handsome, yours or mine?”
“Mine, I imagine, if, that is, the gods presented us with noses for the sake of smelling. Your nostrils point to earth; but mine are spread out wide and flat, as if to welcome scents from every quarter.”
“But consider, a snubness of the nose, how is that more beautiful than straightness?”
“For this good reason, that a snub nose does not discharge the office of a barrier; it allows the orbs of sight free range of vision: whilst your towering nose looks like an insulting wall of partition to shut off the two eyes.”
“As to the mouth – proceeded Critobulus -, I give in at once; for, given mouths are made for purposes of biting, you could doubtless bite off a much larger mouthful with your mouth than I with mine.”
“Yes, and you will admit, perhaps, that I can give a softer kiss than you can, thanks to my thick lips.”
“It seems I have an uglier mouth than any ass.”
“And here is a fact which you will have to reckon with, if further evidence be needed to prove that I am handsomer than you. The naiads, nymphs, divine, have as their progeny Sileni, who are much more like myself, I take it, than like you. Is that conclusive?”
“Nay, I give it up – cried Critobulus -, I have not a word to say in answer. I am silenced.”