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: Italy

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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The artist introduces himself.

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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 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 artist tricks you.

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The artist’s position in Artemisia Gentileschi‘s Self-portrait as an allegory of painting (1638-39) is highly uncommon for a right-handed person. If you try to reenact it in a mirror you will see what I mean.

(Try two mirrors, then.)

The artist looks down on you.

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Possibly my favourite self-portrait, this is one of only three characters in Sandro Botticelli‘s The Adoration of the Magi (1475 ca.) staring “at the camera”.

It has long been identified as the artist himself. His expression is formidable as he looks down on the viewers, including his commissioners, with an ever so imperceptibly pursed lip and raised eyebrow.

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