Self-Portraiture and the Artistic Value

Susan Richards

From one of the first self-portraits created in the 15th century to today's millions of modern selfies peppering social media, the reflection of one's self in any form continues to fascinate, amuse, and hold cultural value.

Le Désespéré (The Desperate Man) is an oil-on-canvas self-portrait by Gustave Courbet.

While people have represented themselves in art for millennia, German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is noted for sketching the first self-portrait in 1484 when he was only 13 years old. Dürer was very conscious of his image and reputation as an artist, going on to use his own image many times throughout his prolific career.

The introduction of glass mirrors in Europe during the same era may have contributed to more artists using self-portraits as a way to express and represent themselves in history.

The Italian Renaissance artists, however, leaned toward sneaking their own image into a larger work – sort of a painterly cameo appearance. In Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli appears to look straight at the viewer while the attention of the other subjects are occupied elsewhere. Michelangelo famously included his own image in the skin of St. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel's Last Judgment.

The Artist's Motivations

In subsequent centuries, the self-portrait continued to gain popularity. The historical value of many such works has been profound, giving us a glimpse into the cultural contexts and personal lives of many artists. And, of course, the artwork provides unique insights into their creator's psyche and self-perception at the time.

What motivates artists – from then and now – to record their own image, be it in charcoal, paint, sculpture, or photography? Chances are, it isn't simple vanity. The varied reasons might include:

  • Self-portraiture is a great way for artists to experiment with different techniques, themes, and materials.
  • The artists are readily available subjects, especially if models aren't available or affordable.
  • Self-portraits can be used as a means for the artist to establish their identity, talent, and skills.

A Place in History

Many women artists who didn't enjoy the same fame as their male peers would portray themselves at work, such as the luminous Self-Portrait with Two Pupils by the French painter Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803).

Self-Portrait with Two Pupils by Adélaide Labille-Guiard

Reflection and Self-Acceptance

Artists have long used their art to look inward, and the self-portrait is a vivid way to do so.

It's Personal

"People say – and I'm quite willing to believe it – that it's difficult to know oneself – but it's not easy to paint oneself either." – Vincent van Gogh.

Creating one's own image is a powerful tool for self-reflection, and some artists are well known for displaying their souls on the canvas. It's unsurprising that more than 35 self-portraits remain of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) today. His struggles with mental health can be mourned and appreciated in his brush strokes and color choices to this day.

The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) combined realism and fantasy in her many self-portraits, expressing her identity, passion, and sometimes pain.

In contemporary times and our increasingly digital era, self-portraits have allowed artists to connect with audiences, challenge norms, and address societal issues in uniquely personal ways.

Self-portrait by Susan Richards

The sky is the limit when it comes to medium choices, which makes exploring the power of self-portraiture accessible for everyone. You don't need to plant yourself in front of a mirror for hours, staring into your own soul and obsessing about wrinkles or blemishes.

In a recent mixed-media class, I encouraged students to use photographs, collage, words, personal ephemera, and even symbolism to create a visual and personal representation of themselves. The results were wildly different and showcased people's diverse perspectives when examining their own likeness.

"Transformation" by an Art Verve collage student

Notwithstanding their significance in art history, self-portraits are still a terrific starting point for developing observational skills, understanding human expressions, and maybe even getting to know yourself a little better!

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