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: February, 2013

The artist’s model.

Valadon, Suzanne - 1883

Suzanne Valadon modelled for Puvis de Chavannes, Degas, Renoir, Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec and even composer Erik Satie, who represented her, respectively, as statuesque, naked, innocent & melancholy, provocative, hungover, and early-Renaissancesque.

She had relationships with most of these artists, and rumors have it she tried to commit suicide in order to get Toulouse-Lautrec to marry her.

Toulouse-Lautrec - Portrait_de_Suzanne_Valadon_par_Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec

This could be true or it could be a legend. Nevertheless, I cannot help but notice that the only one who really got the intensity of her stare — the only one who saw her, as it were, as she saw herself — is indeed Toulouse-Lautrec.

Witness the first and last of her self-portraits, dated 1883 (top) and 1931 (bottom), compared to Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1888 painting Gueule de bois (centre).

Private self-portrait of a public man.


When released these two paintings some time ago, they attracted much ridicule on the web for their naïve style and unpoetic subject. Yet George W. Bush‘s leaked self-portraits tell us something about our times which few of us now lazying about on the web can dismiss so easily.

What I mean is, often that moment of privacy when we take a shower or a bath is the only time we are alone with ourselves. So unaccustomed are we to the absence of others (people, tasks, or stimuli) in our lives — what are we to do with our own exclusive presence?

The private work of a public man, Bush’s self-portraits pose exactly that question.

Image(Compare the number of photographic portraits of feet and selves-in-mirrors that are found on any social network or blog — few of us are wholly immune to the strange feeling.)

The artist has self-irony.


There is some earnestness in this 1882 Self-portrait before a mirror by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which the sketch below, also from that year, humorously subverts.


Yet although the two works are opposite in spirit, in both of them (either through the framing of the bust in the mirror or through the conventions of caricature) the artist is somehow disguising his proportions — which were a cause of physical and psychological concern for him throughout his life.


(This is a gelatin silver print by Maurice Guibert portraying Toulouse-Lautrec as both artist and model, in the 1890s. Guibert’s playful pictures of Toulouse-Lautrec dressed up in several guises are a model of self-irony.)

Self-portrait of the street-artist.


Though nobody has seen his actual face, infamous graffiti artist Banksy has in fact produced a number of ‘self-portraits’. The one above, sold in 2009, fetched what, at the time, was the artist’s personal record.

(Two years previously, Banksy had made a painting of an auction where a blank, framed canvas showed the words: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”)

When a series of stolen shots purportedly picturing the artist in Jamaica in 2004 were leaked online, several newspapers and blogs gloated over the unmasking of Banksy.

ImageSome time later, the graffiti below appeared in Shoreditch, London. By many hailed to be Banksy’s self-portrait, I am surprised I couldn’t find anybody who pointed out that this piece, clearly taken from the ‘Jamaican photo’, must be the artist’s way of scoffing at your credulousness.


(It is quite weird how we react to a contemporary artist whose face is unknown, especially if we consider that all the pre-XIX century self-portraits posted below come from people whose actual features are forever unrecoverable — and that is arguably what is so fascinating about their work.)

Animated self-portraits.

In 1989 animator David Ehrlich asked eighteen colleagues to produce a twenty-second animation each representing themselves.

The directors are, in the order, Sally Cruikshank, David Ehrlich himself, Candy Kugel, Bill Plympton, Maureen Selwood (from the U.S.A.); Mati Kütt, Riho Unt, Priit Pärn, Hardi Volmer (Estonia, then U.S.S.R.); Jan Švankmajer, Pavel Koutský, Jiří Barta (Czechoslovakia); Bordo Dovnikovic, Joško Marušić, Dušan Vukotić, Nikola Majdak (Yugoslavia); and Kihachiro Kawamoto, Renzo Kinoshita and the “father of manga” Osamu Tezuka (Japan).

To me, it is particularly interesting how one can tell the shared features of each nationality.