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.

The artist’s hand.

Menzel - Hand des Kunstlers mit Farbnapf 1864

The artist’s hand has been his earliest object of self-portrayal, ever since the (probable?) dawn of art in the paleolithic.

That was during the last ‘ice age’ — but I reckon Adolph Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel did not know this, as he set about painting the Artist’s hand with ice cube in 1864.

Sixteen years earlier he had experimented on the same subject with his Right hand drawn with the left hand; twenty-two years later he would paint his own foot.



The artist portrays you.

Marie-Denise Villers

It is not 100% certain whether this Young woman drawing is actually a self-portrait. Before it was finally attributed to Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821), it was believed to have been painted by Jacques-Louis David. When this opinion was challenged, the work’s value plummeted.

Nevertheless, the Met decided to keep it where it was — and with good reason. If this is indeed a self-portrait, it is particularly enigmatic, even beneath its apparent clarity.

It is in fact quite rare to see the artist drawing with her right hand (and not with the left, as her reflection would appear in a mirror); moreover, her figure is unusually set against the backlight, as if the window is meant to illuminate not the artist, but a model before her.

These two details, combined, give the impression that she might be portraying someone in front of her — that is, you.

Marie-Denise Villers 1801 (detail)

(Add to this the way the couple outside seems to have entered the ‘shot’ almost casually — despite its studied framing — drawing your distracted gaze as you are posing for the artist. Villers was an almost exact contemporary of Jane Austen, and this is how Lizzy Bennet and Mr Darcy may have dressed.)

Double portrait of the artist in time.

Helen Lundberg - Double Portrait of the Artist in Time 1935

If you liked the time-travelling artist, Helen Lundberg’s Double portrait of the artist in time (1935) is the thing for you.

It is played on the same paradox. How can the little girl with the budding shoot pose in front of a painting of herself in her blossoming twenties?

The shadow (also appearing in Bailly’s painting as his wife’s ghost) seems here more polyvalent and opaque — Is it the artist’s? Her older self perhaps, older than both her representations? Or might it not be her ancestors’?

The artist has a preference.

Poussin 1649

When his Parisian patron Jean Pointel asked for his portrait, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), by then residing in Rome and renowned throughout Europe, thought it best to do the job himself. The outcome shows just why.

The artist set out producing two self-portraits, wilily assuring his commissioner that he would give him the one that turned out best.

Jean Pesne - Self-portrait of Poussin

In 1649 he painted the top one, posing in front of a tomb in the style of a memento mori, while in 1650 he made the other (bottom), with the artist posing in front of a painting of a woman about to embrace another person, probably a sign of the artist’s friendship to his patron.

He sent them both to Paris in the same batch, but the two paintings met a different fate. The 1650 one, now in the Louvre, propagated Poussin’s reputation as an artist of intensity and decorum — his dark eyes caught in the lines of the two frames behind him — and was taken as an artistic model by successive generations of painters.

Poussin 1650

The 1649 portrait was less lucky. It suffered a downsizing (witness Jean Pesne’s specular etching, centre) and sat in Berlin, in virtual obscurity, for over three centuries, undeservedly atoning for the fact that the artist was more partial to its younger brother.

The caveman’s hand.

El Castillo

The cave of El Castillo (Puente Viesgo, Spain) was discovered in 1903. It contains one of the earliest instances of human painting, if not the earliest.

Above is one of its many “stencils” of a hand–a partial self-portrait: the artist mixed the pigments in his mouth, spat them over his hand and left its negative shape on the wall. This was approximately 40.000 years before you and I did pretty much the same in kindergarten.

Stencils of the artist’s hand are also found in the relatively more recent cave of Chauvet (Ardèche, France), discovered in 1994. There they appear, impressively, alongside their positive counterpart, handprints (below).

Chauvet 2

These caves do not contain full representations of the human body (which are typically uncommon of paleolithic art and, according to at least one interpretation, might have been taboo), but at Chauvet a vulva with legs is pictured. This cave, dating approximately 32.000 years back, is the one featured in Werner Herzog’s imposing 3D film Cave of forgotten dreams.