The self-portraits are central among the early works of Gustave Courbet. They are all aesthetic and moral statements that see Courbet claim both a legacy of the old masters, the Dutch and Venetians in particular and appropriate the romantic dramatization. In 1854, looking back at his work, Courbet wrote to his Montpellier patron, Alfred Bruyas. "I have done in my life many portraits of myself as and when I changed state of mind I have written my life in one word." The Wounded Man illustrates the romantic theme of the artist as a suffering hero.
First painted in 1844, the scene was painted over by Courbet ten years later, after a breakup. The female figure which originally leaned on the shoulder of the painter disappeared — making way for a sword and, at the height of the heart, a spot of red blood on the shirt. This piece became an intimate moment of autobiography, evoking a duel, and the agony of abandonment.