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: Woman

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.)

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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’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).

Woman vanitas.

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The longer I look at baroque-inclined conceptual artist Helen Chadwick‘s Vanitas II (1986), the more I am persuaded that Clara Peeters‘ quite traditional Vanitas, painted over three and a half centuries earlier, is much more radical.

Young women and fresh flowers had long been compared in poetry written by men to persuade their mistresses to concede their flower. Here, our awareness that the woman in the painting probably is the artist herself makes the wilting flower’s proximity to her more poignant than it has ever been.

(In fact, once you notice the wilting flower, you soon start getting the strange feeling that every other object in the painting does not assert its value effortlessly.)

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Helen Chadwick must have realised that the female body in art is never a neutral subject. She decided to abandon its explicit representation two years after her self-portrait was shot.

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.)