An Alternative History of Self-portraiture

In this blog of my painting work I have tried to give small art history lessons too, particularly if the history illuminates some aspects of my own concerns. I have decided to expand this idea further. Since I have done a few self portraits lately, it might be useful to reflect and make observations on the art of the self portrait in general and my personal history of doing them, as well, which is above this.  The last self portrait I did was called “History” so let’s delve a little into the history of this ‘genre’.

Self-portraits have common features, but are all different, which is what makes them interesting. It is rarely narcissism that inspires this “enchantment of self with self” as the poet John Ashbury calls it, in his poem “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. This poem, rather a self conscious one, is a study of himself in relationship to the self portrait by Parmagianino. I am not sure the phrase “enchantment of self with self” is an exact way to put what is in self portraits, as that implies some smoky mysticism. The poem ends in obscure interior monologue and a kind of empty modernism, worthy of Jackson Pollock’s inchoate lavender mist.

And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time….

This tells us little but suggests an delusional metaphysic of eternity. Ashbury writes:

The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

No, that is not what it says. It shows a young boy, not yet a man, and one that is enraptured by early science and the  appearance of things. There is no smoky mystic of the soul here. There are mystical and smoky self portraits, no doubt. They can be found on the internet. The best self portraits are not glowing and misty, but the opposite of Ashbury. They are rather accurate and direct observations of actual people, done in a deep, inquiring, empirical effort to fathom and understand oneself and the world one lives in.

My understanding of the genre of self portraits is not the one we see in Janson’ s Art History or other standard art histories, Janson’s shows the ‘great’ luminaries, which makes some sense up till about 1800. But even with the old timers, art history is largely about power, not about reality.  But I am not at all interested in the record of self congratulatory powers writing their own histories. Janson’s book is little more than corporate history rewritten to lead art into a dead end of praise for political propagandist images made for the ruling class, whoever they may be, corporate, Church or aristocracy.  Much of modern art panders to the ideology of escape and abstraction, newness and corporate capitalism. The story of the unjustly rich does not interest me much. By 1900 art history becomes something false and largely a creation of a fictional art world run by critics and gallery owners, promoting artists of little skill or insight, making art into a adjunct of fashion and little more than a way to make too much money. Once one takes apart the iconography of power, art appears as a very different thing.

So the opposite of Janson’s art history is the story of ordinary people, places and things, and one can find few of them in art before the Renaissance. I do not mean the Marxist history of imaginary peasants either. One can find a few in Egyptian art and culture or Rome, even Greece, a little. But mostly one sees the history of emperors, Pharaohs, Kings, and mythologies. Stalinist and Maoist art hardly shows the reality of serfdom or slavery. The history of animals is almost never shown in either capitalist or communist works.  The rise of the game picture in the 1600’s is a case in point, where game is piled on game and the political background of this is the abolishment of all hunting except by the rich. Eventually the control of animals by the rich would be superseded by ordinary people in the Americas, and with this follows the disaster of all animals in out time, populations of all kinds plummeting. If one looks at life, and not power, the history looks very different. So let’s look at a different and much more modest history of the self-portrait.

Self Portraiture is a kind of painting that could have only appeared after the age of the religions. Religions of all kinds vilified  the ‘self’ and institutions taught hatred of self in their own interest and in subservience to priests and kings. Only the elite had selves. It is a rebellious painting that resists power, which is why there are no good self portraits in Byzantine, Medieval corporate or abstract art. Such societies beat down the self as a matter of public policy. In modern times this is done by corporations. In fact, corporations are not persons, despite their fanciful legal claims and their cult of the CEO, which is itself a mythical fabrication.

The self that is worth considering in self portraits is thus not the corporate self, not deities, not aristocratic giants such as Van Eyck painted. The self that matters is ordinary and related to all other beings on earth. No one knows another so well as one knows oneself, yet so much about oneself is still unknown, hence the knowledge shown in self portraits and hence the mystery, which is the mystery of the actual and the lived, not smoky transcendentalism. The best self portraits show both this knowledge and this mystery. They are not dreamy and mystical, but factual and unflattering.   A glimpse in a plain, bathroom mirror might well produce on the best of self portraits, if truly seen.

Who am I, where have I been, where am I going, what will be my end.? These are primarily questions nearly everyone asks. They are central questions of this genre. This is the real condition of all living things on earth.
So then. Lets look at some of the history behind the self portrait.

I like to get the things I don’t like out of the way first. So, there are great self portraits that I do not like very much, and it might do to discuss these first. I recognize their quality as human documents and artistic facility. But their content is disturbing in a way that does not have the merit of protest, empathy or human tragedy. Rather they show human psychological excesses and complexes.  The first and probably my least favorite self portrait image is that of Michelangelo. I wrote elsewhere that

“Michelangelo is a reactionary force in many ways. He is not a realist but a Platonist and idealist. His gigantic figures have little to do with reality, adding muscles to human anatomy that are too humongous the be believable. He harkens back to Dante and the medieval mind. The inflated and titanic quality of his work is a symptom of a corrupt institution. His only self portrait shows him as a pathetic flayed skin hanging in mock humility of the hand of a saint who is  a bloated giant of transcendence.  This formula of this extreme humility combined with delusions of grandeur can be seen in many places and it is a token of atrocity and institutional cruelty.”


Despite his considerable drawing skills, (see copies and sketches of the Battle of Cascina) his art is merely Church propaganda, lies told to advertise an institution. His depiction of himself as a boneless skin harkens back to the self-abnegation promoted by the repressive Christianity in the  Dark  Ages and follows from a reality hating Platonism.



His depiction of himself as an animal skin is repulsive in a way that serves Christian propaganda and cannot be taken seriously on its own  terms.  It is a vain and inflated false modesty one sees here. He is the only corpse dragged by the skin up to heaven to be with the saints. This is actually a delusional fantasy of power, despite its pose of mock humility. His depiction of Christ as a whirling tyrant of death looks forward to the Absolute Monarchies of Europe, and back to the Inquisition and the genocide against Native Americans. To my mind the Last Judgment of  Michelangelo is one of the worst art works ever made and contains one of the worst self portraits ever done. It is great propaganda, certainly, as were the Tractor/Farmer, happy worker paintings of Russia under Stalin or Mao. They have a similar purpose: social control. But Michelangelo is making art that is about power and its transcendental cruelty and destructions.  Compare this excess with the delicate honest and small self portraits of Rembrandt, the one in Edinburgh, Scotland, for instance. Despite his considerable and sometimes wonderful drawing skills, Michelangelo’s art is merely extremely well done, Church propaganda.
There is no self-portrait by Leonardo, though by analogy all his work and Notebooks are a self-portrait, in effect. The old man that is often used as a self portrait cannot be one, as it is too early. Leonardo, in contrast to Michelangelo, disliked institutions and the Church and was forward looking or rather, he is present and an amazing, with an inquiring mind that looks to each thing for the reality of it, how to draw it, how to understand it. He is the antithesis of a Platonist. Leonardo disliked institutions and the Church.  He is the first scientist.   The only reliable image of Leonardo is the Francisco Melzi portrait, profile of him. Study Da Vinci’s drawings if you would see how he sees himself and others. They are amazing.


Image result for caravaggio david and goliath


Another disturbing work, less harmful than Michelangelo’s because less influential, is the last self portrait of Caravaggio. This is not to excuse Caravaggio, who did great shame to art and artists by his violence and mania. Narcissism is a problem for psychopaths, people who care about no one but themselves. Caravaggio was like that. He was abusive, violent and cruel. This is why I have always had misgivings about his work. Certainly he was very good, technically, at painting. But I don’t much like his dissolute self-portraits. In one he shows himself as the god Bacchus and poses with rotten grapes. In the last of his self-portraits, shown here, he paints himself as the severed shed of Goliath, and perhaps the David who severed the head is actually a self-portrait of Caravaggio as a young man. It shows Caravaggio at war with himself. But the criminal and murderer won. This work is is the guilty self analysis of a man who actually murdered someone.

Caravaggio evidently tried to give this work to Cardinal Borghese, the papal official with the power to grant Caravaggio a pardon for the murder he committed. Unforgiven, this is close to the bottom of the barrel for self-portraits. Self portrait as guilty of murder and trying to get out of being responsible for it. One can admire the artfulness of this psychopathic skill of this work, but the psychopathology remains. It is an hateful image.


There are other ‘great works’ I have questioned too. Durer’s 1500 self portrait, certainly a
master work, shows him as Christ and this sort of mythical identification bothers me.  The myth of Christ is here used as a identity for Durer, and identifying with a myth is something of a lie, not dissimilar to the lie that corporations use to hijack rights to themselves, however useful it may be, and whomever it will hurt, to make such grandiose claims. It could be said that he was following the Christian model of glorifying the portrait sitter, and should not be blamed for doing what was standard. This is what is done in aristocratic portraits as well as picture of Jesus and Mary, where gigantism and excess were models from Michelangelo to Van Dyck and Reubens.. Gauguin did the same thing, showing himself as Jesus, as if involving this myth would make him more of a star. But I dislike this sort of transcendental advertising. But I do not look for excuses for these works, and find such things distasteful and do not like  them much, even if they are well done, as this Durer is much better done than,  say, Gauguin’s pictures…..



Las Meninas by Velazquez is likewise a strange work, and while the composition is perfect and fascinating, I think it very overrated. People have called it the greatest work ever painted. Even a great realist like George Clausen likes it, as he says in his interesting “Six Lectures on Painting” At best, it might be the best advertising for the feudal system of hierarchy ever done, perhaps. Velazquez  shows himself with a red cross emblazoned on his chest, a symbol of the military order of Santiago that served the king and Church. like a soldiers of Christ. In the Spain of the time this not a badge of honor, given the Inquisition, and the panoply of military and Church orders that sustained European social injustices, caste and the horrors of the Crusades and Conquistadors. It is no better a good thing than belonging to the KKK was in the 1920s. Velazquez served the King and this picture is really about glorifying another king. I don’t have much sympathy with these implicit meanings in this work. But those who claim this as a painting of its time and see it as great for that time are correct in their way. Velazquez is good when he paints a whirling spinning wheel and a woman spinning wool on it. He is good painting a water seller, and his pot with water dripping down the side of it, or a woman poaching a bowl of eggs. I admire his realism, not his aristocratic service of Royal Families, even if the red cross was painted on after the man died. It is clear the Velazquez wanted to be a member. So it is not inappropriate, and Velazquez is a problematical person because of these reasons.

But I much prefer Goya, whose satire of the Spanish Nobility was brave and accurate. So here begins self portraits that I have loved.


Goya’s Great 1820 Self portrait with Dr. Arrieta 1820 brings the genre into a whole new sphere. It shows Goya sick and ailing, perhaps with Yellow Fever. Goya had ridiculed the doctors of the time as greedy quacks, not without good reasons. Leonardo disliked the doctors of his time too. But this doctor appears to have known something, or in any case, saved Goya’s life. Onlookers stand behind in fear of what will occur, frightened and a little frightening as only Goya could do. One of the best artists to ever show the vagaries, follies and dark side of human experience, Goya here shows himself full of hope and gratefulness. This is unusual and exceptional in the history of art. He was a man with deep insight into humanity,

Self Portraits show insightful things about their makers. Historically, the self portrait grew out of Greek and Roman portraiture. Hellenistic Greece and Rome were particularly good at this. While many sculptures have survived few painted works have. There are few self portrait paintings prior to Van Eyck in the 1400’s. But some late Roman works, remnants really, the so called Mummy portraits are very well done. Here is one:


These were paintings done on the head of caskets, showing the person inside. Some of them show how sophisticated Roman art had already become. John Berger thinks these were done from life, which seems likely, given the specificity of the individuals. These images were meant to console the living on the one hand, and, it seems, to let the dead have the fiction or wish of eternal seeing, even after their demise, they look out into the darkness of the tomb or the earth itself. these are among the last of Greek and Roman images of the self.

The Christians suppressed an art of individuals as well as realism, and there is a real decline in the Dark Ages, with crude hierarchical art reflecting an autocratic politics that suppresses the self and creates cartoon like and status oriented images of kings and queens or bible figures.

Realism and self portraiture does not arise again with any kind of skill until Jan Van Eyck  in the 1400’s. Van Eyck is  a hero of mine, along with Leonardo.  In his book on the history of  the self portrait, James Hall says that standard art history texts fail to stress medieval art, since it contains only a few self portraits. But he fails to make a convincing case, as the Icon form of Veronika’s Napkin is not a self portrait– as he claims– but an icon of a mythic image, a kind of religious cardboard cutout.

The Renaissance really is a re-flowering, watered by the Romans and the Greeks, bringing it all back. Science liberated us from those who wanted us never to care about ourselves, who wanted us to serve only the aristocrats and the Churches. It is no mistake there are few good self portraits between the Roman Mummy portraits and  when Van Eyck did one in the 1400’s. The value of the individual is not really honored again until between 1400 and 1600, with the rise of science and the questioning of Christianity.


Van Eyck and his Wife

          I also have doubts that the rise of self portraiture is only about the rise of the “individual” in this period. It is really about the rise of objectivity after centuries of mythic subjectivity promoted by the Church. In Van Eyck’s portraits there is an amazing concern with veracity of texture, face and material. Even his devils are 3-D masterpieces of texture and form. He did the earliest realistic portraits of medieval towns in exact depictions, as one can see in the background of the The Chancellor of Rolin. These are the first accurate depictions of medieval life, warts and chin stubble and all. Prior to that powers promoted an hatred of self, cultivated by all the major religions. By the time of Van Eyck, after the Plaque, this begins to be questioned.

Through the dark ages fictional images of the Buddha or Christ dominate world art. Christ identified himself as the son of god: “I and the Father are one”. This reflects well the self serving state mythos of those who had power, the Patriarchy. These myths are meant to make you abandon yourself, abandon your own perceptions and accept the way of the Institution that sets itself up as office of confessions and the controlling factor in your inner life. The endless portraits of the Buddha or Jesus are about this. Van Eyck did something different. He begins to show the world as it is without intermediary or symbols and fictions. Yes, he does religious art too, but he begins to move away from it and some of his works have no religion at all in them. Religion has become merely an exterior.




Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen Painting a Portrait of His Wife, 1550, thought to be by Dirck Jacobs(1497-1567)

So by the time of this self portrait of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen by his son  in 1530-50, there is a real change. His son, Jacob Cornelis is said to have done this exact copy of a work done by his dad and added the portrait of his Mom. The portrait of his mother was added by the son, to the portrait by his Dad, in other words. This makes this work a work of an entire family  and I find that moving. It is a family self portrait. I understand the need to do this and have done it myself.  I liked it the moment I saw it last year in the Toledo Museum of art. I see the father’s calm strength and the the mothers  worried and worn but caring regard for her son. I see my own mother in this.  It is unclear if Jacob is looking at his wife to paint her or looking at his son who has painted both of them. There is that lovely blue sleeve, the excellent hand, and the sorrow of the mother facing old age and loss.





Van Oostanen leads us to Rembrandt, one of the best draftsman ever. I have long admired Rembrandt’s drawn and painted work. His self portraits show a man in all stages of his life. His earliest ones are great experiments in light, going well beyond the paint into the textures of reality itself. His control of tones is quite amazing, the thickness of the neck, the wild hair, the superb gradation of the grey background, the solidity of the jaw, the mystery of light on his face.


In his middle period his painting is solid and mature and his grasp of reality quite extraordinary. Even when Rembrandt painted myths, the figures are weighed down by reality, one cannot quite accept the myth as real. Jesus never looks like the celestial fiction  of the Gospels but like the guy next door dressed up with a slight inner glow. Rembrandt shows Saul as a crazy, over dressed man and not the great king of the fiction of the Bible. Modernists like to imagine Rembrandt is painting like them, but he isn’t. His use of paint is way beyond the paint itself, about which he cares only as much as it can express his mind.  He is showing himself in his strength and his fragile skin, human and fallible, not the most handsome man who ever lived, but real and touchable, tactile and authentic. The paint is clotted and thick or thin and invisible but always under control and always describing reality.



Paint is as supple in his hands as words are to Shakespeare, who is said to have used 31,000 words and 14,000 of them only once. Most Americans now are lucky if they know 7000 words. In some ways Rembrandt goes beyond Shakespeare to describe the realty of light and air, his parents, wife, lover/companion and son. He looks at us from this self portrait at 51 in Edinburgh, Scotland with sadness and strength, a real person with wrinkles and  worried eyebrows, resolution in his lips and even a little fire in his eyes, telling us of his love of life. Take his wonderfully done hat off and cease to think of the fashion of his well painted coat, with the lovely shadow on the upturned collar, and this is a man alive today, staring at us with confidence, beauty and not a little sadness. The fleshy nose and closed, expressionless lips do not hide the sensitive eyes, looking at and through us into the mists of time and the human heart. The solidity of this figure is achieved by a thorough control of the light and dark on the face.





He explored his own human frailty to great depths, and some of his late self portraits show sadness and melancholy as well as humor. Mark Twain, in his cynical, later years would have understood very well.

In his last self-portrait he is both very fragile, as old people often are, and yet, luminous, perhaps even accepting at last, of who he is and why he loved painting. Painting is life for him, not about its own materials after all, but beyond the paint, into the very texture of delicate old skin and decades of experience and thoughts.  He had lost his son, his wife and most of his wealth, but he still has a little of the old show off in him, indicated by the hat and the bravura of the broad brush strokes that define it carefully. Yet the face is tired and has delicate labor in it, the work of decades, the dedication of a real artist. He is old, failing, and the eyes don’t see as well, but he is still alive and glad to be here. He is the Shakespeare of paint and yet he is humble and beyond worrying about his faults, not looking at death, but at what remains of life, which is all that matters.  There is a glow in him, like he finally understands what it all means, and it is a meaning that is in his efforts, in his works, in the facts of things. The ochre fire above the tight brim of the hat is the orange on his pale cheeks, soft as a ripe peach, glowing on his lips and smiling slightly, right before the end of it all. The light on the brighter eyelid is amazing, as is fragile skin of his sagging and delicate face. He is still looking at us, with his unaccountable compassion, more than 400 years later.


The Baroque period of Watteau has never interested me that much, though I studied Mime for a time and like the Commedia dell’ Arte and like some of the music from then. But the oppressions of Louis XIV and the absolutism of kings are horrendous and corrupted most of the age. I have some admiration for the science of the time, as well as Chardin’s homespun women and still lives. But I have always enjoyed the smiling self-portraits of Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Delatour’s ( his own spelling of his name) other work is very finely done in pastel , but is again of the the uber-rich, and does not interest me much, with the possible exception of his portrait of Voltaire.


Turner’s self portrait did not interest me much at first.  But it has grown on me as has Turner over the years. I studied him pretty closely when I lived in London. The Tate has an amazing collection of his work, he left it to them as a gift to the Nation.  He left money for poor artists too, taken later by some greedy relatives. He flirted with the rich quite a bit, and made a lot money, but he seems to have overcome this in the end and his roots in the lower classes triumphs. He is not the empty abstractionist recent critics have tried to picture him as. He is much smarter than that and much better at drawing. He draws with great insight and intelligence.

He was not that good at portraits in general, though there are interesting portraits of a dentist, a blacksmith and a winter morning. But there is a pathos in him akin to Goya, in works like the Slave Ship or various shipwrecks or two scenes he did showing humans interacting in a landscape.  Monet was not that good at figures, either. But like Vincent, Turner kept trying. But Turner and Monet both are perhaps the most suggestive and evocative landscapists of the 1800’s. But he is less superficial than Monet. Some of his drawings and watercolors of buildings and cities are among the best ever done. He is one of the best and earliest of Plein Air painters, and he did many amazing architectural studies, as well as Marine work and ships. His love of the sea is profound. He was an educated man, much more so that popular images and movies of him show. His work is literate and has many local reverberations and references, and constitute especially a travelogue of England then, as well as Europe. I admire that in him. Above all he become a painter of light and that shows even in this self portrait, where his bright face is like is amazing skies and water studies. He is worth far more study than has been given him so far. His Slave Ship, a profound protest against capitalism and Insurance companies, is a one of the greatest protest paintings of the century, as are other paintings of his on steam and speed, retired old ships, clouds and mountains and mist. His theory of color, going beyond Goethe, links him to Thoreau and the deep understanding of the crystalline nature of color and atmosphere that would not become very clear until the polluted times of our own colorless era of Global Warming.

There are many fine self portraits in the 1800’s.  Gustave Courbet did many self portraits, and there are a number of amazing drawings too. But by far the most impressive is this one.


Gustave Courbet’s “The Artist’s Studio” (1855), oil on canvas.
perhaps the most ambitious self-portrait ever done . Courbet wrote of this that “It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right are all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers and art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life: the masses, wretchedness, poverty, the exploited and the exploiters, people who thrive on death”. One of his friends is the patron Alfred Bruyas  who was incidentally a hero of Van Gogh. Charles Baudelaire and his invisible partner, Jeanne Duval, ( this should be restored perhaps).  It is Dickens in paint and tells many stories. He calls it a “real allegory”, an interesting non sequitur that suggest multiple meanings in the work.  It situates him within the society of the time and the political conflicts. It is perhaps the most important of modern or “secular” self portraits, and sets the stage for much of what follows in realism and personal art.


Fantin Latour’s flower studies are some of the best of the 19th century and still unsurpassed. His knowledge of oil paint is considerable and worth studying. He did a number of interesting self-portraits too. This is one that is not often seen, but it has a freshness or the glance and an honesty and immediacy that I admire. It goes well beyond the paint. Some of his self portrait drawings are also very well done.



From a sketchbook by Adolf Menzel


The 19th century artist Adolf Menzel did an amazing amount of drawing. Unfortunately, not much of his work has been reproduced. His drawings present a more honest and different person than his paintings. His paintings which are often good, as in his study of men in a factory, for instance, but many of them appear to be picture of aristocrats and are thus about money. He did do some interesting protest art about war, his dead soldiers, for instance. His drawings are a different matter and a daily effort and his skill is exceptional. These two are typical examples from his sketchbooks where he shows himself peering out of the page with objectivity and sympathy. His painting of his foot is good too.



Samuel Palmer’s visionary work, influenced by William Blake has its interest, particularly the dense and clotted early drawings and the moonlight pictures. But these do not interest me that much anymore. But the one that still wows me the most was this small self portrait, which verges on a kind of perfection in drawing.


The modeling is very well drawn, and the form itself is exquisitely realized. He kept this one all his life and I can see why. It is  a dreamy sad eyed young man, He is real and in space with a great sense of existing and a presence of being. A real person, flaws and all, not at all idealistic in this one, but looking head on at life.

self-portrait 5

The impressionists did not do very well at self portraits in general, but one that I like is by the Frenchman Henri Martin. It shows him before a window and a mountain is outside it. He did not do too many others things I appreciate as much as this one.  It has a great sense of space and color and the artist in the midst of it, trying to understand it all.


Degas’ earlier self portraits are well done, but rather haughty, and his last one shows him very old with one of his bather pastels behind him. Degas was the best of the impressionists as far as drawing goes, as he studied with Ingres s one could guess– the quality is so great. There is a certain pride in this picture as if he knew his late nudes were very good, as many are. But there are questions with Degas. His relationship to the young dancer he sculpted and drew raises questions about his misogyny. There is also his strange involvement with slavery via his mother, who was from an American southern family that owned and sold slaves. Later Degas painted the Cotton Exchange of New Orleans, which was involved in exploiting freed African Americans in the Post Civil War American South. Degas father and brother were involved in buying pro-Confederate bonds during the Civil War and depended on slavery and its later perpetuation under the new regime of the Black Codes set up after the south lost. There were ties between the families friendly to the Degas with the White League, a racist organization. This cast some doubt on the student of Ingres, who like Ingres appears to have been something of a far right reactionary. Degas is to some degree the product of exploiting the labor of African Americans both before and after slavery. I have never seen this dealt with by any art critics. It affects his work insofar as it brings the French upper classes of the time into question and Degas art largely served them.  He did do many beautiful things. But one has to take into account the other aspects of things that are part of the history of this self portrait. This brings Degas and his self portraits into question, despite their quality as drawings.


Vincent Van Gogh is a very different story. He is a socialist at heart, though he waffles in this due to the influence of his family. But as he grows older his views become more and more social realist. His art would have gone more that way if he had not gotten ill. He speaks more than once of wanting to paint the exploited miner’s in the Borinage where he had lived earlier.   His friend Boch, of whom he did a famous portrait, was living there.

Vincent Van Gogh’s painted self portraits, like Rembrandt’s, are among the best in history. Vincent did not have the drawing skills of Rembrandt, and Vincent himself knew this. He did some wonderful drawings, nevertheless, as he makes up for lack of skill in the sincerity of his efforts, his social awareness, humanity and love of nature, all of which are abundant and in his letters and art. Van Rappard had reproached him for his poor drawing, not without Vincent agreeing with him to a degree. But Vincent makes up for this in the intensity of his effort to express care and wonder at nature. When his pictures are seen in the light of his letters, the awareness of one man trying to live and create in nature and in a difficult social order grows even deeper, and he opens up vistas to the whole of 19th century art and culture.  Vincent if far more thoughtful and deep that Degas, even if he lacked Degas drawing skill. There is nothing else like Vincent’s work seen in its totality on earth. It is wonderful what he did. His letters are by far the best commentary on his art, and his art and letters together are an extraordinary lesson in the art and culture of the late 1800’s.

When I was a young man, Vincent was one of my early companions, and I read him closely. I did a number of copies of his works as a part of my education. The one drawing I copied was this one.



I did the copy quite exactly, line by line, and it was about as perfect as it could be. I had it for some years and it disappeared,  as did a number of things, out of my portfolio, I have no idea where, who or how. It was a shame. But it was a good exercise, as line by line, I felt what Vincent was trying to do. So I won’t include more of Vincent’s work here, but only recommend that the reader look him up and study all his works, while reading the really exceptional new translations of his letters done by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, edited by Hans Luitjen and others. It is an amazing series of 6 volumes. It will open up the social history and history of art of the 19th century to anyone who reads these books well.
Indeed, these letters and pictures, including the self-portraits, are very likely the best all around self portrait ever made but a human, alongside those of Rembrandt.



One of the more interesting of the realists around the turn of the last century (1900) is the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi. (d. 1916) His works are full of lonely beauty with a deep emphasis on light falling into an interior space. Even his landscapes seem somehow interior. He evokes Vermeer in his quiet study of people in silent rooms filled with light. He does not have the domestic warmth of De Hooch, but there is a cold, northern warmth of dust motes in sunlit air streaming into a room. A lot of his work revolves around his wife or other women in rooms. But they are noticeably childless rooms, and quiet nearly to the point of tears. It is useful to compare Hammershoi to   Carl Holsoe and Peter Ilsted (1861-1933), who was Hammershoi’s brother in law. Hammershoi’s, wife, Ida, was Peter’s brother. These two men were close. Ilsted’s work is warmer and more colorful. It is less motivated by loneliness and emotional disturbance. The warm tones evoke more of life and children lighten his work.  But it is good to look at their work together as they extend each other and have many similarities and differences. Art historians tend to pit them against each other, but this is as absurd as pitting Van Rappard against Van Gogh, —they were friends, and all these men are fine artists. Here my concern is self portraits so I reluctantly leave Ilstad out. But mention him as he has many virtues, and he is a good contrast and complement to Hammershoi.

I do not much like the concept of “Genre”, but it is sometimes useful. There is a subgenre of the genre of self portraits that might be called nude self portraits, though nudity in the ordinary, sexualized sense is often not what they are about.    Durer’s nude self portrait was done around 1500 C.E.


This is an interesting portrait and perhaps the first one ever done of this subject.   It is a great drawing, one of his best informal things.   Egon  Shiele’s rather fashion plate nude self portraits do not interest me much,  perhaps because of a certain show off narcissism in them. But there is little point in discussing Shiele as he is not a good example.  I dislike Durer’s own portrait of himself as Christ for the same reason. Self aggrandizement is what Shiele has in common with Durer’s portrait of himself.  In contrast, Durer’s  nude self portrait has the merit of being objective and not merely promotional. The light in it is exceptional for the time. It has some romantic and orientalist qualities, but is a fine figure for Durer and the time.

The unfinished nude self portrait by Gwen John is better than Shiele, and has neither the self disgust or the fashionable attempt to shock and be martyred which possessed Shiele. It is too bad she did not finish it as it is a wonderful start, and already expresses the quiet awareness and exploration of character that is common in all her work. We are after all animals who do not have clothes attached to us except by need and culture. This is not a nude in the usual sense, but the beginning of an effort to see herself as reality, not a male object.  She was a model, and this one was done as her affair with Rodin was turning sour. He neglected her badly, but Gwen did her best to be objective about both him and herself. The feet are wonderful and elegantly drawn and the inclined of the head suggest study and commitment.



Gwen John’s delicate sense of self is always trying to express itself in subtlety shaded nuances.  The self portraits of Lucian Freud in contrast are a touch on the monstrous side, though not as extreme as those of Francis Bacon and Jenny Seville, where the body is seen as a sort of battle field covered in gore.  The self portraits of Bacon and Saville are more about the self as a victim of the cult of the individual, which after Walt Whitman’s notion of the self as Manifest Destiny, become the Gargantua of corporate elitism. I have no interest in any of that. But compared to the excessive and inauthentic melodrama and promotion of the gigantic fetish of self as monstrous commodity seen in Freud, Bacon and Saville, Gwen John has a kind of honest and delicate self assessment that I admire. She is neither bombastic, hankering after fame, or horrifying. She is down to earth and close to nature. It is interesting to compare the self portrait so Gwen John to that of Elizabeth Nourse.


Elizabeth Nourse, Self-Portrait, 1892 (left) Gwen John, 1899 (right)


Nourse did lovely pictures of children and mothers, full of life and wonderfully rendered and turned forms. Nourse shows herself with  a realists eye and I admire the strength that does not need to show off. She was also a contemporary of Mary Cassatt, like John, but I think is better than Cassatt.  Nourse painted the poor whereas Cassatt did fashionable portraits of upper class women and children, mostly.  Noruse is the better artist, but the art world tends to lionize what the rich like, to its discredit. In contrast, Nourse demonstrates a quiet and deliberate consciousness, while John shows herself as determined and even powerful. I think she did have a certain power,  judging by various biographies of her, the one by Sue Roe being the best so far. John’s confidence is amazing in this portrait, which recalls Rembrandt standing in the same position, sure of himself. Gwen was worn down in later work into much more fragile expressions.  Rodin’s poor use of her eventually drove her into religion, in despair. Her later years gave her some peace, in her garden house in Moudon, close to her cats, and her overnights in nature. Her final year is mysterious and she died in Dieppe, France and is buried in an unmarked grave.


It is interesting to compare the Hans Holbein of Henry the Eighth to Rembrandt 1652 self portrait and that to John’s 1899 self portrait. The portrait of Henry was evidently quite fearful to those who lived in Henry’s time, because Henry himself had a reputation for brutality and murdered a few of his wives. Is Rembrandt imitating Holbein? Or is he mocking Holbein’s Henry? Rembrandt looks like an ordinary if very committed and serious craftsman and is dressed in very common and apparently rather dirty clothes. He does not exude royal privilege as does Henry, rather he exudes confidence in skill and craft.  John’s shows a woman with similar courage and confidence. There is a sympathetic similarity in the John and the Rembrandt. whereas Henry looks over dressed, pompous and ridiculous.

Self Portraits often reveal the character of those who make them, even if they are suffering real delusions, but still trying to see clearly, as was John.  Gwen John work has an insightful ability to evoke the character of her sitters, as her early portraits of Dorelia show. I like her self portrait as told through favorite objects by a window too. She did a number of these in different light, and with slightly different objects.

These are not merely impressions, like Monet’s works. These are efforts to grasp the actual  in the room where she lived, and to picture herself through what she loved. She wrote in a letter that it “seems as if I am not myself except in my room”. I doubt this was really quite true as she was very involved with people of many kinds, women and men, from Rilke, to Jacques Maritain, to Rodin and various women she loved. Of course this stress on interiority and subjectivism was common to Rilke, Rodin and many others. What I admire in her is her effort to be objective about herself and others, not her escapist subjectivism. But it was in her room and of women alone that she did some really fine work. Rodin of course, was her lover but also her jailer, as he was to other women. It was in the same room where she did the unfinished nude of herself, she also did the dressed portrait below, called  “The Artist in her Room” in Paris. In both she is beside the same table and bed as appear in window studies.



Sometimes she saw herself as a strong and capable artist, as in the self portrait above, which I paired with Elizabeth Nourse’s. When her relation with Rodin began to fail as was inevitable—he was a serial adulterer— she saw herself as a figure like Ophelia after having lost Hamlet, and did a drawing of herself as that, singing slowly in paint as she drowned. She was capable of deep love, even on an unworthy object like Rodin, and wrote him nearly 2000 letters. His paltry notes to her are hardly worth reading. He probably did not deserve her 2000 letters, but she wrote them anyway, just as she did her paintings, without hope of return. I admire this kind of commitment. They are modest works, certainly, but fine too, from her brown teapot to her lovely portraits of women such as this nocturne of Dorelia McNiel.


Gwen John was one of Rodin’s mistresses and like the very gifted sculptor Camille Claudel, she was driven to desperation by Rodin’s selfish and unfair treatment of her. To some degree Rodin did great harm to both of them, especially Claudel. But John’s slow deterioration had partly him as its source too.  He used these women as mistresses and was very neglectful and self serving with them.



Claudel’s few remaining sculptures are very fine, some of them self portraits. Claudel appears to be partly responsible for some of Rodin’s best work, and some of it is of her.  Indeed,  Rodin’s rather predatory relationship to women is not to his credit.

Continuing the work of Gwen John, Kathe Kollowitz and others in touch with the reality of women’s lives, though I don’t know if she would say this, is   one of my favorite contemporary painters . Katy Schneider, I discovered her work only recently and am impressed by the whole series of marvelous works on her family. This can be seen here, under the heading “Interiors”.


Like John her studies of herself are not stereotypical nudes men like to imagine, but pictures of her actual life with children and her husband. These are pictures of a human being living and thinking, feeling and observing.


She painted wonderful pictures of her pregnancies and kids when they are young that are unique in the history of art. In fact they are not really about art at all, so much as they are about real life. That is the art in them, lacking so often in what is called “art” in New York Galleries. She is amazed at herself and the changes her body has undergone, the child behind her, the way the breast rests on the big belly. While I am sure others have painted their own pregnancy,  I don’t recall anyone doing it so well and so honestly before. All of her works in this series are great small works, which start to chip away at the taboos and false assumptions around pregnancy, family  and having children.  She shows family as it actually is in our society and I admire that. These are honest and very personal works that are delicate and well organized. I have done a lot of pictures of my own family and so enjoy seeing works like this, because they are so true to life and to what one experiences as a parent of young children. There is joy and in them, and they are beautifully composed and drawn. She looks at the canvass and sees all that space beyond it, back to the refrigerator and the books on the table and forward to the kids in her arms and on her knees. The canvass holds it all. She is aware of the lives it holds within it, aware of her own life in the midst of those other lives. This is painting at its best.


Ivan Albright did a lot of paintings which explore mortality and the beauty of color. At first glance, there appears to be a pervasive sense of entropy in his work. One would think they are conditioned by a spiritual sense of Christian corruption on the one hand, or a sense of existential collapse and decay on the other. But the latter is perhaps is more likely, rather like a Sam Becket play, who also seemed to be prone to self portraits.. Albright appears to be a philosopher and the notion of corruption is compensated for by his use of color and a humanism that is very deep. This comes out even more at the end of his life with his last series of self portraits. In his last few years, these go beyond the obsession with mortality and celebrate his existence, prior to his death. Albright said
“I find that my thumb up close is as big as the highest mountains of the Andes,”  “I would in that case rather paint my thumb, because I can get around it easier and see what it is all about.”

x39      x40


Though it should be added he was a world traveler and did some interesting landscapes too. This is a statement by a man in love with life and not a Christian seeking other worlds. In any case, he had a stroke at the end of his life and suddenly the crusty beauty and corruption disappear entirely and we see an old man, now weak and thin, and looking not to death at all but back to life,— he looks back to life with sadness and a love of color. I find this moving and celebratory, after all . In the painting on the left, a year or two before his death, he appears to be about to speak, and he looks like a wizened old worker, strong and sad, but with some joy in him, but slowly losing his eyes, which look ancient. In the other, just before his death, he is struggling to hold on, with half his face gone due to the stroke, and the other half still trying to talk, and a rainbow on his shoulders as if color and a faint hint of the life in color were all that is left him.


This struggle  for life is echoed in the work of Stanley Spencer too. When I lived In London in the 1980’s,, I saw his Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife 1937.



Spencer said of it.

“This big double nude is rather a remarkable thing. There is in it male, female and animal flesh. The remarkable thing is that to me it is absorbing and restful to look at. There is none of my usual imagination in this thing: it is direct from nature and my imagination never works faced with objects or landscape. But there is something satisfying in looking at it. It was done with zest and any direct painting capacity I had.”


It is again of that “subgenre”, nude self-portraits. It is an amazing study of an ordinary couple. It is disquieting however, rather alienated. It is too bad he put a mutton leg in it, but that was an effect of his spiritual tendencies, unfortunately. The association of flesh with meat is a Christian, meat eaters association. I don’t share either of these things. He should have become vegetarian, rather than associate love with meat eating. But despite that, it is an amazing celebration of the closeness and alienation of a couple. It is hard to tell which, perhaps both. I especially like the warm hearth in the background. I lived in England for awhile and a heater is definitely needed some days.

In the self portraits here, one is of himself as a young man, and then there is the second as an old man.

        x13              Self-Portrait 1959 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959


But there is an abiding devotion to life, as in Ivan Albright. In the self portrait as an old man, Spencer paints himself not long before he died of cancer but there is no hint at all of his disease, except maybe some defiance at it. One sees only his strength and his desire to fight to stay alive. I admire this and though I might not be capable of this myself, I don’t know, it is admirable, free of myth and full of humanity. There is determined smile and an intensity in the eyes that comes right to the viewer and greets them.  “Be strong like me”, he seems to say.

There are few self portraits among so called “modernist” artists since Picasso that I like. There is Klee’s “Lost in Thought” in which he is dramatically trying to shut out the outer world and only fix on the inner. This is impressive.  In the Nazi Germany in which he lived that was perhaps a desirable thing to do, but really, perhaps not, and maybe he should have opened his eyes more, as Otto Dix did. It is the whole word that matters and not just one’s inner world.  If more people had opened their eyes, perhaps Nazism would not have flourished. The banishment of form from art has not been a good thing and results in an en empty art history that has few things of interest in it. Spiritual and surreal art have a similar escapist quality. Romantic subjectivism is a dead end, as I have written elsewhere. This is not to say that there are no contemporary realist self portraits that are good. Raphel Soyer did some very interesting ones.




There is a quiet smallness in them that I like, a powerful humility. He also did a large study, now in the Butler in Youngstown, Ohio, called “My Friends” in which you can see him on the far right. It is modest compared to Courbet’s, but it is in the family of large and complex self portraits.



Harvey Dinnerstein has a number of large ones too. He admires Soyer and thought of him as a model of sorts.  One of the best  is a group of diverse people on the Staten island Ferry, Dinnerstein and his wife on the right and Walt Whitman with the white beard in the background. Others are there too, celebrating average people and not just famous poets.


There are various self portraits with animals or birds. Not many perhaps, though actually humans started making art 30,000 years ago primarily about animals and females and not kings or famous men. Human centered art is a later creation after the delusional idea that people are not animals was created in artificial early cities.


Frida Kahlo is the other great self-portraitist of modern times. She is not a modernist in the narrow dogmatic sense used by art magazines. She is a realist in the best sense. But she did some great work as did her husband Diego Rivera. I like this one of herself with some Parrots. Too bad she is smoking, but such are the contradictions in her work.




She was also rather confused about Stalin, as was Neruda for a time, though he realized it eventually. My friend Jack Hirschman made the same mistake as Kahlo. Communism had social justice on its side, but this was betrayed by Marx, Mao and Stalin in their religious zeal. Marxism tends to be a religious faith, rather like free Market Capitalism, which is irrational and harmful in a different way, but it also kills people and biomes. Its opposition to the exploitations of capitalism is the good aspect of it.  Frida loved nature and that is evident in this work, despite all the contradictions. I love her last painting of watermelons on which she wrote, “Vive la Vida”, long live life!


There are not many self portraits with animals, but it is one of my favorite genres. Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) was one of the best animal artists of the 1800’s. His self portrait shows him with two of his beloved dogs. The Windsor Castle collection description of it is interesting. It says


“The artist is making a drawing in chalk, watched by two dogs. The collie is probably Lassie, who was Landseer’s constant companion in his studio…. Landseer wrote in a letter that he hoped the Prince of Wales would accept the painting as an acknowledgement of his unvarying kindness towards one of his oldest acquaintances, an old attached servant. The image is presumably intended to suggest that dogs recognize resemblance to Nature as well as humans and therefore make as good judges of painting.” This is an usual view of animals that could be had only by someone that knew them well.
There are many interesting artists among the realists of the last 30 years. I am leaving most of them out for lack of space and time. My favorite self portrait among recent works is this one. It is by my deceased friend Marilyn Szalay. She did many self portraits, even daily ones with various animals. She was a great lover of nature and spent a lot  of time observing the facts of animal lives.  This one celebrates both nature and her love if it. She was a devoted nature observer and spent a great deal of her final years watching birds and deer and many other animals. This was one of her favorites and it one of mine too. She had it hung in pride of place in her apartment living room. (see  more here:



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