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.

Category: Sculpture

Self-portrait: earliest found.

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The altar of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan, carries the earliest self-portrait in Western art I could find, dating approximately 824-859, during the Carolingian rule.

The Latin inscription identifies the artist as VVOLVINIVS MASTER PHABER (Vuolvinius, Master Goldsmith). But it is not the actual resemblance that counts (the character-traits are pretty generic) as much as the words that name the artist, his respectful pose, and the blessings and golden crown he is given by patron saint Ambrose, for whom the artist made his work.

This type of portrait is crucial better to understand the revolutionary, new-found naturalism of a Ghiberti, already a modern man.

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“We have lost the best of the young sculptors and the most promising.”

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(Self-portrait, 1913)

“Gaudier-Brzeska has been killed at Neuville St. Vaast, and we have lost the best of the young sculptors and the most promising. The arts will incur no worse loss from the war than this.” (Ezra Pound, letter to Felix E. Schelling, June [1915]).

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Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) was just one of the artists killed in WWI. He had had about four years to develop his sculpture, but though only 23, he still managed to be influential.

Many of his works, such as this Rodin-influenced Head of an idiot (1912), which is actually a self-portrait, were only cast posthumously. There is a film on him by Ken Russell.

The artist looks like Mao.

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The 1401 competition for the creation of the gates of the Baptistery in Florence is often proposed as the starting date for the Italian Renaissance.

Here are two self-portraits of the artist who won that competition, Lorenzo Ghiberti. The above one is from the northern gates (1403-1424 ca.); the one below from the eastern gates (1425-1452 ca.), which an awed Michelangelo dubbed Porta del Paradiso, gate of paradise.

Here Ghiberti, now an established sculptor and architect, casts aside his turban, comes to terms with his baldness, and reveals that he looks rather like chairman Mao.

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(Flippancy aside, the naturalism of the self-representation was, at the time, nearly unprecedented. To see what I mean, contrast Volvinius‘ much earlier self-portrait.)

The first self-portrait: a bad start.

“But the reputation of his works nevertheless brought a burden of jealous hatred upon Phidias, and especially the fact that when he wrought the battle of the Amazons on the shield of the goddess, he carved out a figure that suggested himself as a bald old man lifting on high a stone with both hands, and also inserted a very fine likeness of Pericles fighting with an Amazon. And the attitude of the hand, which holds out a spear in front of the face of Pericles, is cunningly contrived as it were with a desire to conceal the resemblance, which is, however, plain to be seen from either side.

Phidias, accordingly, was led away to prison, and died there of sickness; but some say of poison which the enemies of Pericles provided, that they might bring calumny upon him.”

This is the first account of a self-portrait in history — the image of the Great Phidias (ca 480-420 BCE) sculpted on Athena’s shield on the Parthenon in Athens.

Self-portraiture is riddling from the start: Phidias’ act is perceived as hubristic and brings upon him envy and demise.

The episode is narrated by Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 31, 4-5.