Self-portraits are an integral part of art history. Many great artists have created self-portraits. Here is a list of some of the most recognised.
‘SELF PORTRAIT IN A STRAW HAT’ BY ELISABETH LOUISE VIGEE LEBRUN’S
Arguably the greatest female painter of the 18th Century, Madame Elisabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun was a highly fashionable portrait painter and made a name for herself by painting portraits of royals, including the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
She was a great admirer of Peter Paul Ruben, particularly his portrait of Susanna Lunden wearing a straw hat; ‘Le Chapeau de Paille’ (1622-1625). This was what partially inspired her to paint a self portrait in a straw hat in 1782. The painting depicts LeBrun standing outside, wearing a straw hat and holding her art tools.
This wasn’t her only self portrait. LeBrun had painted a self portrait with her daughter Julie in 1787, which was exhibited in the Salon of 1787. The painting caused some scandal as it showed the artist smiling, open-mouthed, which was against traditional painting conventions.
‘SELF PORTRAIT WITH A SUNFLOWER’ BY ANTHONY VAN DYCK
Like Elisabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun, Anthony Van Dyck is considered to be a master of portrait painting. The ‘Self portrait with a sunflower’ is probably his most famous piece. He painted the masterpiece between 1632 and 1633, during the height of his fame, while Anthony Van Dyck served as a principal portrait painter in the court of Charles I of England.
The self portrait still remains a subject of study and debate, including the significance of the gold chain, which was most likely given to Van Dyck as a token of appreciation from King Chalres I.
However, it is the significance of the sunflower which has really thrown historians and scholars alike. The symbolism associated with flora and fauna in art and literature is regularly studied. Sunflowers have commonly been associated with devolution and fidelity or loyalty. Although there has been no evidence that the sunflower symbolizes Van Dyck’s loyalty to the crown, paired with his caressing the gold chain, this is a popular belief.
FRIDA KAHLO’S SELF PORTRAIT CREATIONS
We’ve previously mentioned Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’ when discussing symbolism in Kahlo’s paintings. But when it comes to the topic of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, there are not enough hours in the day.
‘Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’ might well be Frida Kahlo’s best known self portrait but it isn’t the only one. At 17, Kahlo was involved in an accident which caused her to suffer from severe injuries and she had to undergo 35 operations over the course of her life. She was in extreme pain and couldn’t have children.
A lot of Kahlo’s self portraits are biographical, depicting moments in her life. She even noted that she chose to paint herself because that was the subject she knew most about. ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (1932) portrays Frida lying naked on a hospital bed with blood and hemorrhage. The painting portrays the moment Frida felt when she had a miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital. Surrounding her are six objects including: a male fetus, the son that she longed to have; an orchid that looks like a uterus; a snail symbolising the slow-moving operation.
Another notable Kahlo self portrait is titled ‘The Two Fridas’ and was painted in 1939 shortly after her divorce with Diego Rivera. The painting depicts Kahlo’s two different personalities – the traditional Frida wearing a Tehuana dress with a broken heart. The other Frida is the strong, independent and modern Frida.
GUSTAVE COURBET AND THE DESPERATE MAN
Gustave Courbet has been known for challenging conventions. He is also considered one of the most creative self-portrait artists, with many of his self-portraits portraying the artist in various roles, such as ‘The Cellist, Self-Portrait’ (1847), ‘Man with a Pipe’ (1848–49) and
‘Self-Portrait with Black Dog’ (1842–44). Over the course of his life, Courbet had painted about twenty-five self portraits.
However, it is most probably ‘The Desperate Man’ (c. 1843–45), which is Courbet’s most recognised self-portrait. The painting is one of his early works and depicts a Gustave Courbet with an expression of psychosis and fear. Gustave grasps his hair with his arms raised above his head, muscles bulging from his forearms in a tense moment.
VINCENT VAN GOGH
We can’t sign off an article about self portraits without mentioning one of the most famous painters of all time, Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh had painted over 30 self portraits between 1886 and 1889. In his early stages of painting, Van Gogh would use peasants as models before moving onto landscapes and flowers – primarily because he couldn’t afford to pay the models. He explained in a letter to his sister in 1887 that:
“Of my own work I think that the picture of peasants eating potatoes I did in Nuenen is après tout the best I’ve done. But since then I’ve had no chance of getting models, though on the other hand I did have the chance to study the colour question. And if I should find models again for my figures later, then I would hope to be able to show that I am after something other than little green landscapes or flowers.”
Vincent Van Gogh struggled to make money as an artist and as he practiced portrait painting, he couldn’t afford a model, and so he painted his own portrait.
One of his more notable self-portraits would be ‘Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear’, painted in 1889 after he had left the St.Remy asylum and just weeks after he had cut off a portion of his own ear. The piece portrays the artists’ inner struggle with his own demons and fears.