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: XIX century

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.

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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’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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.)

The artist’s foot.

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The Artist’s foot (1876) belongs to Adolph Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel.

He was seventy-one at the time, and probably the most popular German painter living. In portraying his own foot he is claiming to the artist’s unlimited power of choice.

He has also left us a few portraits of his right hand (being left-handed). The self-portrait below, from von Menzel’s sketch-book of the same year, is as unusual in the way the composition is framed.

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(No doubt, von Menzel could hardly have guessed how popular foot self-portraiture would become in our days…)