On page 84 of the course material it instructs, “Do some research into artists’ self-portraits. Some artists – most notably Rembrandt and Van Gogh – painted numerous self portraits, but there are plenty of other examples. Choose five or six self-portraits that particularly appeal to you. Try and choose examples that cover a broad time span and a range of painting techniques. Look carefully at these and make notes in your learning log. For example, does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist? What is the purpose of the self portrait? What impression is the artist trying to convey? What impression is actually conveyed? If possible, compare your chosen Self-portraits with portraits of the same sitter by other artists. What does this comparison tell you?”
I have chosen the following Portraits to research;
- Portrait of a Man by Jan Van Eyck
- Self-portrait with a beret and a turned up collar by Rembrandt Van Rijn
- Self-portrait as a painter by Van Gogh
- Self-portrait with a straw hat by Van Gogh
- Self-portrait by Gwen John
- Self-portrait in the studio by Salvador Dali,
- The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo
I also look at The Painter of the Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin
The earliest painting was completed in 1433, while the most recent is dated 1944, a span of 511 years. I have written about them in date sequence.
In all but one of these self-portraits, the artist is clearly looking in a mirror and thus appears to be looking at the viewer. Again, in all but one of these paintings, props of some kind have been used, by which I mean that the artist has used something, an object, often of clothing, to project the image they want to convey, from Van Eyck’s unlikely (to modern eyes, perhaps) red hat which presents his skill in handling cloth to the onlooker, through Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s hat collection, easel and paints, which are used by Van Gogh and Dali, and a more surreal but profoundly expressive use of column, nails and corset/bandages in the Kahlo, who also uses an exaggerated monobrow as a kind of shorthand to quickly identify herself. Only Gwen John opts to present herself without props or apparent symbolism,
It’s clear, I think that the use of hats is a tried an tested way to engage with the viewer, something that may help with the self portrait I’m planning for assignment 3. With a hat I could use colour, such as with the yellow straw hat with the intended purple background in Van Goh’s Self Portrait in a straw hat, but also to say something about myself, just as Rembrandt with his Beret, or Frida Kahlo’s explanation of constant, unrelenting pain.
Portrait of a Man by Jan Van Eyck
I have always loved this painting and though there is some uncertainty about whether it’s a self portrait or not, the general consensus is that it most probably is. The painting, 26cm x19cm, is in Oil on Oak.
I particularly like the hat, which looks as if a large piece of cloth had fallen on his head, and reminds me of watching a very senior Sheikh in Kuwait rearranging his ghutra, (the arabic name for their headdress) apparently at random, but actually with great precision to create a broadly similar effect. For that Sheikh the apparently untidy style was supposed to link him with Bedouins who often wore it, and to say, “man of the people” when with his very privileged upbringing as favourite grandson of the reigning Amir, he was anything but. It can take just a little twist to tell a story about oneself that could be true or not true.
If this painting is a still life, it’s one of the earliest examples of the genre. Already a trend setter for painting in oil paint instead of tempera, he may have added innovating with the 3/4 pose he used, not just in this self portrait but in many of his other works, according to (https://m.theartstory.org/artist-van-eyck-jan-artworks.htm) which adds that the intent gaze of the sitter directly at the viewer suggests “the artist’s intent focus as he creates a work in his own image, with his hands, out of view, busy with the task in hand.” The site adds, that the complicated hat “provides a means for the artist to flaunt his impeccable technique.”
The painting is in the National Gallery having been purchased for the collection in 1851, and is still in its original frame, which bears an inscription with the date it was painted – 21 October 1433 as well as a pun on his name in letters that appear to have been inscribed but which are in fact painted.
The National Gallery website (https://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ImageInfo.aspx) says, “The painting, so carefully inscribed, was presumably one of particular significance to the painter, and it has been suggested that it may be a self portrait. The direction of the man’s gaze also suggests this.”
It also explains that “Van Eyck uses light and shade in a subtle and dramatic way: the sitter seems to emerge from darkness, his face and headdress modelled by the light that falls from the left. The viewer is drawn towards the image by the penetrating gaze of the sitter.”
Many artists appear to use props when playing with still life techniques, hats, for examples are very popular, and this has to be one of the finest, most outrageous hats I’ve yet seen, It is instantly memorable and complex enough to draw in the gaze of the viewer on one hand and fix it in the memory on the other, impressing the onlooker with the artist’s virtuosity.
Turning to the questions suggested in the course material;
Does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist? Only on the frame itself – he uses his personal motto, “Als ich Kan”, which refers to a proverb of the time, As I can, but not as I would according to (https://m.theartstory.org/artist-van-eyck-jan-artworks.htm) which is a fairly typical artist sentiment.
What is the purpose of the self portrait? My guess is that he did it because he could. we don’t know whether the hat was fashionable or a rustic abomination – perhaps he was interested both in the process of painting himself, but also in the intricacies of the hat itself.
What impression is the artist trying to convey? Quite clearly he aims to show off. Perhaps the hat and that intense 3/4 stare were to showcase his ability as a portrait artist, at a time when the genre was becoming available to a greater range of potential patrons – in which case it’s the equivalent of a USP (Unique Selling Point) in its time.
What impression is actually conveyed? Just that.
I couldn’t find any portraits of Jan Van Eyck.
Self Portrait with a beret and turned up collar by Rembrandt Van Rijn
My second choice of painting is Self Portrait with a beret and turned up collar by Rembrandt Van Rijn, which can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
According to Google Arts and Culture, “Rembrandt painted, drew and etched so many self-portraits in his life-time that changes in his appearance invite us to gauge his moods by comparing one image to another.” He actually painted many other self portraits in his career, often choosing to present himself in a different hat to change his look.
This painting really is magnificent, his face emerges from the background, with his hat, head and upper torso giving way to soft edges and dark. The painting was made in when the artist was fighting bankruptcy after financial reverses which had put his home and everything he owned – including his artworks – at risk. https://fineartconnoisseur.com/2017/06/portrait-of-the-week-rembrandt-van-rijn-self-portrait-with-beret-and-turned-up-collar/
The painting was finished about ten years before Rembrandt’s death, in 1659. To my eyes he looks sad and perhaps penitent, reaching for a connection with the viewer. I’m not sure what the beret adds to this picture, but then everything in the painting is obliterated by the powerful mastery of that face.
Does the artist portray himself as an artist? Unless the beret has some significance easily understood by his contemporaries, the answer has to be no.
What is the purpose of the self portrait? In his very many self portraits he seems to be recording stages in his life, and almost certainly demonstrating his skill to potential patrons and customers. Here at a time when his finances are in jeopardy, ge seems to be reminding potential patrons that nobody modelled the face to the same standard.
What impression is the artist trying to convey? I think this is all about his skill in painting his face, The rest of the painting is quite dark, and the colours very subdued.
What impression is actually conveyed? I cannot know how people of his time regarded this self-portrait, but to my own response to the painting, is partly awe, and a certain discomfort in front of that scrutiny in his expression.
Self-Portrait as a Painter and Self-Portrait with a straw hat by Van Gogh
I chose three paintings for this category, two self portraits with very different intent, and a portrait of Van Gogh by Gauguin
Self-Portrait as a Painter by Van Gogh Oil on canvas, 65.1cm x 50cm
This was the last self portrait he completed in Paris. According to the Van Gogh museum, he told his sister that he had portrayed himself with “wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad” Indeed, that sadness is the first thing I noted about the self-portrait, ahead of the orange beard/blue shirt (with flecks of orange) or the heavy impasto technique of the whole.
It has an impressionist feel in the handling of his skin, hair and of course that wonderful shirt.
The self -portrait is lit from behind so that most of his face is in shade. He looks away from the viewer instead looking towards his canvas, but then this painting is about claiming his place as an artist, or so I assume. It’s one of the few self-portraits I looked at in which the artist is not meeting the onlooker’s gaze.
Self-Portrait with a straw hat by Van Gogh Oil on cardboard 40.9cm x 32.8cm
This is in the Van Gogh Museum. He primed the surface and added dashes of purple. However, that purple has faded, as has most of the pink. This is not then the self-portrait he intended, which would have featured a strong complementary contrast between the yellow of the hat and the purple background. (https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0164V1962)
Does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist? yes and no; in the first of the two paintings. he stands at his easel, showing his palette and a handful of brushes. in the second only the direction of the gaze and the stance might suggest it.
What is the purpose of the self portrait? I think it’s telling that the first was on canvas and the second is on a much cheaper alternative, primed cardboard and the strong contrast intended between the yellow hat and the purple background has been lost, perhaps due to poor quality pigments. The first is formal, and Van Gogh had used different techniques including a very heavy impasto. In this he was saying, “look, I’m an artist.”
The second self-portrait may have been on cardboard because it was intended as a study, or practice painting, but equally, it might have been because of a shortage of funds. According to a television programme about Van Gogh I saw many years ago and thus cannot reference it, the plethora of self-portraits may be because he didn’t have the funds to pay for a model – a strange paradox given how valuable some of these paintings are today.
What impression is the artist trying to convey? It’s clear, I think, that in the first of the two paintings Van Gogh is establishing himself firmly as a painter, using colour combinations, e.g., blue and orange, that mark him as interested in colour theory and impressionism, in the second, he uses a great deal of colour in order to suggest his art. One is overt, the other covert, but I think the intent is similar. I do think he achieves his intention in both cases, though there is a considerable difference in the man conveyed in each. One appears robust, a man who has established himself, and the other more angular, gaunt, and if I read his gaze correctly, somewhat anxious. (The trouble with interacting with Van Gogh’s work is that it is impossible to unlearn the legend of the tortured genius.)
If possible, compare your chosen Self-portraits with portraits of the same sitter by other artists. What does this comparison tell you?
The painter of the sunflowers by Paul Gauguin
This painting was made when Gauguin was staying with Van Gogh at Arles in 1888. According to the Van Gogh museum in the Netherlands, it was made in December, and so it was not actually done while Van Gogh was painting sunflowers. There are elements of imagination in the portrait, but mainly in the background. Perhaps the most important thing is the resemblance to the sitter. Van Gogh acknowledged, “it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.” (https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0225V1962)
So Van Gogh recognised himself, and yet the figure conveyed is very different from the gaunt figure in the straw hat, He is being presented as an artist by a brother artist, seemingly absorbed by the sunflowers he is painting, even though it could not have been painted from life as the painting was made in December, long after the last sunflower had died. Even the name of the painting presents Van Gogh as an artist. In this he agrees with Van Gogh, but everything else is different. The technique is flatter and indeed, fictitious, something that couldn’t be more different from Van Gogh’s careful scrutiny and observation. He also marries blue with orange, in the vase and sunflower combination, but entirely different to Van Gogh’s handling of his shirt, say in Self Portrait as an artist. The eye level for the painting is strange. Although this purports to be the painter as he painted his iconic painting, the eye level is somewhat unlikely. If it was a simple still life it would be indoors or at least in an area of the garden that is sufficiently level for an easel and table to hold the vase. Instead we see Van Gogh in a hole, or else Gauguin up a stepladder. It suggests that it may not have been painted from life. I don’t know enough about either man to be able to deduce why it was painted like this. Perhaps all this suggests that each artist worked in their own way to reach their similar ends, that of stressing Van Gogh’s chosen career. The physical differences between the man in the yellow hat and Gauguin’s painter, one gaunt, one full fleshed may be due to illness, but it may also be down to how Van Gogh saw himself.
Self Portrait by Gwen John
To my eye, John is presenting herself to the world with a straightforward confidence and no apparent desire for appeasement or self-abasement. The gaze at the viewer seems to say, “I know exactly who I am, and I’m comfortable with that knowledge. More to the point, who are you?” The fact that she hasn’t resorted to props of any kind supports this. She wears a rich red blouse, gathered at the shoulder, and some gold earrings, with a black choker, fastened at the neck with a cameo brooch, although on second thoughts perhaps the choker and brooch are props of a kind – I have considered them more as fashion. I think her neck is elongated somewhat, but I’m not sure whether this was done for effect, or whether she just had a very long neck. She is lit from the left with what appears to be pale early-morning light, but the lower left part of her face and neck is in shade, as is her left shoulder. She stands, I assume, in front of a plain wall or background. One side, the side closer to the light source, is darker than the other.
The painting is dated 1902 and hangs in the Tate Britain gallery. The biographical notice with the painting talks about her training at the Slade School of Art, and that as a successful female artist she had placed herself outside society’s expectations of careers for upper class women. It goes on to say, “It has been suggested that the intense self-scrutiny of this image and her isolation, reflect her experience as an artist,” It goes on to say that Gwen John’s reputation has grown in recent years, particularly for her subtle use of colour. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/john-self-portrait-n05366
The National Portrait Gallery has a very different self-portrait of her painted in 1900, just two years before the above painting. In it she looks proud, almost defiant, wearing a blouse with huge mutton chop sleeves, The gallery observes that in comparison to the Tate self-portrait, it is very different; “the other is in the Tate Gallery, and presents a somewhat wistful characterisation of the artist, whereas here the jutting hand on hip and a stance which seems deliberately to burst the bounds of the picture frame, allied to an expression of watchful superiority, indicate a much more confident view of herself.” https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw03484/Gwen-John
The Guardian says of the 1902 self-portrait in the Tate that, “Shortly after this work, she and her brother’s mistress Dorelia set off on foot across Europe, sleeping in fields and paying their way by painting portraits. While it offers no trace of that risk-taking bohemian, it is a picture of a bold woman demanding to be taken seriously.” a reading somewhat close to mine. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/mar/02/anatomy-of-an-artwork
Self Portrait in the Studio by Salvador Dali
I chose this portrait of Dali precisely because it was so different from the surrealist paintings for which he’s better known. It is also very different from the other portraits I’ve chosen for this research. Firstly it isn’t a true self portrait within the normal conventions of the genre. The artist does not appear to be painting from life, looking at himself. He is sitting on his chair sideways on, turned away from the viewer, at his easel with a palette in his hand. In the background is an open door/window which forms the main light source. The pink glow in the distance suggests early morning or sunset.
Not only is the composition different, so is the technique, which appears to rely on heavy impasto and flashes of colour – a far cry from his surrealist pictures to come, and betraying at least a passing interest in post-impressionism. https://www.salvador-dali.org/en/artwork/catalogue-raisonne-paintings/obra/27/self-portrait-in-the-studio
According to the Dali Universe, this is an early work, hence the difference from his later paintings. The site says, “One can see from his ‘Self Portrait in the Studio’(1919) now in the Salvador Dalí Museum in Florida, he used mirrors to paint himself seated at the easel, with completed canvases hanging around him on the walls.’ https://www.thedaliuniverse.com/en/news-dali-early-years
Does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist? Yes, that’s the whole point of presenting himself in his studio with finished canvases on the wall. I had initially assumed this was a work of imagination, but he seems to have had a series of mirrors rigged to give him that view.
What is the purpose of the self portrait? As this is an early work, his intention was possibly just to paint this in a Post-Impressionist manner, from a complex angle.
The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo
I also chose The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo, in which she draws herself split open down the centre, representing her spinal column with a Greek-style piece of architectural column, fragmented and broken in many places, representing the results of the horrific car accident she had when she was just 18. Around her body are strips of bandage-like fabric holding her together or possibly a corset doing so, but with plenty of openings to allow us to see see not just the Broken Column of her spine but also the way she represented her physical pain with nails, hammered not just into the sheet with which she now hides her lower body, but also into he skin on her face and arms etc. In fact there is at least one nail, and often many more, on each part of her body. We recognise her by her exaggerated unibrow, which she included in almost all her self portraits, as a sort of shorthand, identifying her at once – so effective is this shorthand that it continues to be instantly recognisable to this day. In this painting she seems to be telling us that the most significant thing about her is that she suffers.
The painting speaks to me about the possibility and reality of endurance. I experience near constant pain as one of the most pervasive of my symptoms, but though I suffer, occasionally almost unendurably, it is nothing to what this poor woman experienced. A sense of proportion is crucial. I understand her need to describe (in a pictorial sense) the pain, and that doing so would help with the experience of pain on the more difficult days. In painting there can be transcendence, the pain becomes more distant, and perhaps there was a Zen-like aspect to how she approached her paintings. I remember a GP saying to me, “I suppose you’re asking yourself, why me?” I replied that the thought truly hadn’t occurred to me because I already knew the answer – “why not me?” In a world when there are countless people who are struck down with one misfortune or another, why should I be exempt? Now that I know about this painting and Frida Kahlo’s tortured existence I am certain I was right. It’s important to keep that sense of perspective. Frida Kahlo is also a reminder that there is always someone suffering more than you.
I didn’t know about this painting prior to starting the course, but when pain was an issue I couldn’t get past fifteen years ago, I came up with a creative visualisation of MS that helped me through. This is a similar strategy I think. I don’t know if I would ever portray myself that way – and yet I do so in writing quite frequently, Initially I had been going to say that I couldn’t portray myself in the same way, but as I began to type that it occurred to me that it might be possible to do something specific to the MS that shapes my world, not to mention diabetes, diverticular disease, hypertension, hypothyroidism, and the litany of what the medical community calls co-morbidities.
According to Https://www.fridakhalo.org/thebrokencolumn.jsp, she initially painted herself completely nude before covering her lower half with what looks like a hospital sheet, It posits that there is a sexual component to the painting, pointing to the phallic nature of the column, but I think the fact that she was originally naked and covered the lower half up later suggests that Kahlo herself tried to lessen the sexual aspect. As so often in her self portraits, she looks directly at the viewer, her gaze is always powerful and uncompromising. She seems to be saying, “here, this is my reality” She portrays her reality in a way the viewer can comprehend
Does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist? No, but in addition to her skill as a painter is her skill as a story-teller as she explains her reality. This picture had such an impact on me when I first saw it that perhaps I should try this melding of showing and telling. After all, my career as a writer was crucial to who I was. My inability to keep writing has changed who I am, but that story-telling core remains. Maybe I should take a leaf out of Frida’s book and try to convey who I am, but I much prefer to hide.