Thursday, 2 June 2011

The self-portrait as signature, experiment and publicity

‘The history of self-portraiture is one of the most fascinating and complex of the whole genre [of portraiture]. Because self-portraits merge the artist and the sitter into one, they have the allure of a private diary, in that they seem to give us an artist’s insight into his or her own personality. However, interpreting self-portraiture as a transparent account of artistic personality is to ignore the many other factors that have an impact on both its creation and reception. Whilst the representational qualities of self-portraits allow them to be used as a means of self-examination, they have also functioned, for example, as signatures, as advertisement for an artist’s skill, and as experiments in technique or expression.
Shearer West, Portraiture

Like many artists, I make the odd self-portrait; working on one at the moment in fact. Does this smack of narcissism? Not really. For me, it’s a question of economics and convenience. I am my most available model and I don’t charge myself anything. I’m always around when I want to draw and I’ll pose in any position or for as long as I want me to. Simples.

Self-portraiture is also a documentary process. Not only am I charting my physical and emotional changes, but also my development as an artist.

I was interested to read what Shearer West has to say on the subject in her rather good book simply titled Portraiture. She expands on the ‘personal diary’ / ‘account of artistic personality’ idea by examining the history or self-portraiture to begin with.

Apparently there were very few self-portraits made before the sixteenth century. Those that do exist tend to be manuscript marginalia or the artist as minor witness / spectator in religious paintings. The theory is that piety prevented artists from bigging themselves up in free-standing self-portraiture; in other words, the main subject of a work. An interesting example of an artist adding himself as a sort of discrete footnote in a painting is Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage (1434) where the painter can just be seen reflected in the mirror on the wall behind the couple.

Albrecht Durer was one of the first to produce free-standing self-portraits (see the above image painted in 1500). An d what a self-portrait! Durer really went for it with the self-aggrandisement in portraying himself as a Christ-like figure. No worries about piety there then. It’s a beautiful, sumptuous painting in which a richly-dressed Durer gazes out at the viewer confidently. There is no trace of the tools of his trade; he has elevated himself from artisan and shows his view of his own self worth. He is declaring himself equal with the wealthy patrons who would have first seen the painting as an example of Durer’s skill.

There are several reasons why artists began to make self-portraits in the sixteenth century, the first being a matter of pure practicality. According to West, flat mirrors weren’t easy to come by outside Venice where they were invented, a significant obstacle to self-portraiture and one that is perhaps hard for us to imagine today. Secondly, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the phenomenon of autobiography as beginning to catch on, which meant that people were becoming increasingly aware of identity and a sense of self. Again, it’s hard for us to imagine a time when the notion of self and personal identity just didn’t exist.

Thirdly, the status of the artist was beginning to change with the setting up of academies and the birth of art theory. These brought the intellectual aspects of artistic production to the fore rather than the mechanical; fine art over craft. As the idea of the role of the artist was changing, so self-portraiture was a way of enhancing these new concepts of the worth of the artist.

So, as well as being a cheap and more flexible alternative to having to pay a model, documenting physical and psychological change and providing a platform for experimentation, self-portraiture gave artists a way of enhancing their status in society.

But there’s more. Early self-portraiture also provided artists with a useful marketing tool to advertise their skills. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they would send them to courts to attract wealthy patrons, effectively touting for business. I suppose with the various method of reproduction we have today, artists don’t need to publicise themselves in the same way. Or at least, those seeking portrait commissions.

There’s a great deal more to say about self-portraiture; West goes on to explore gender, artistic identity, self-presentation and autobiography in relation to it, but I’ll save that for another blog post some other time.


  1. Why would self-portraits have been a useful marketing tool (more so than other types of work)? Was it just because producing them didn't have some of the costs of other work?
    - Caspar

  2. I think they would have used self-portraits to show their skill at portraiture in particular. Most of their work would have been commissions so wouldn't be in their possession.