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.

Tag: France

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.)

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.

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).

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.)