ObeliskThemes in Art
Self-Portrait, Yawning


— The canvas mirror

The self-portrait is a relatively recent genre. You'd think artists would have started to paint themselves around 6000 BCE, when humans polished obsidian into the first simple mirrors, or perhaps a few millenia later, when copper mirrors were developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt. But nope, the selfie as we know it today didn't appear until 1484, when a 13 year old boy in Nuremburg sketched himself in silverpoint. The boy, Albrecht Durer, became an incredibly well-known artist and printmaker of the Northern Renaissance, and puncuated his early life with more self-portraits, each more confidant than the last. But was Durer really the first self-portraitist? And why do so many artists paint themselves?

Secret Selfies

While Durer is the first known artist to repeatedly dedicate entire canvases to their own face, he was not the first artist to represent themselves in their work. Throughout the Italian Renaissance, and in Medieval and Persian art before that, many artists had hidden their own faces in group scenes, like Sandro Botticelli's 1475 painting of the Adoration of the Magi. You can spot Sandro on the far right—he's the blond in a tan robe. These subtle selfies are called self-inserts, and are less sneaky than they may seem—through history artists have often used patrons as the models for religious or mythical figures. Botticelli's Adoration crams five members of the wealthy and influential Medici family into the scene along with himself. Self-insertion isn't always subtle though. In Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, the Mughal emperor Jahangir accepts gifts from four men: a religious leader, an Ottoman Sultan, King James I of England, and from the artist himself, the court painter Bichitr. The artist stands with international royalty, a bold statement for the early 1600s.

Adoration of the Magi (Zanobi Altar) 1476, Sandro Botticelli

Why do artists create self-portraits?

The self-portrait as we know it today focuses on the artist themselves, often with eyes fixed on the viewer. It's a bold art form, requiring the artist to examine themselves as a subject and to situate their own body in the canon. The self-portrait can be a practice of therapy, self-discovery, or personal myth-making. While artists represent themselves for many reasons, here are a few themes to look out for:

Reed Enger, "Self-portraits, The canvas mirror," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 13, 2015; last modified July 01, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/subjects/self-portrait/.

Further reading atkhanacademy.org
Read More

At The Seaside — Self-portrait

Romaine Brooks, 1914

Cubist Self-Portrait

Salvador Dalí, 1923

David with the Head of Goliath (1610)

Caravaggio, 1610

Double Isometric Self-Portrait

Jim Dine, 1964

Frieda and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo, 1931

Fulang-Chang and I

Frida Kahlo, 1937-1939

Girl (Self-portrait)

Gwendolyn Knight, 2004

Group of Artists

Marie Laurencin, 1908

I am in training, don't kiss me

Claude Cahun, 1927

I love color

Chéri Samba, 2010

I Only Have Eyes For You

Richard Hambleton, 1980

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings

Bichitr, 1615-1618


Egon Schiele, 1914

Marie Laurencin, Cecilia de Madrazo and the Dog Coco

Marie Laurencin, 1915


Ali Al Jabri, 1979


Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), 1936

My Nurse and I

Frida Kahlo, 1937

Myself: Portrait – Landscape

Henri Rousseau, 1890


Ferdinand Hodler, 1890

People Near Boat

Edward Mitchell Bannister, 1893

Personage (Autoportrait)

Robert Motherwell, 1943

Portrait of a Collagist

Benny Andrews, 1989

Portrait of a Woman

Catharina van Hemessen, 1548

Portrait of an Old Man

El Greco, 1595-1600

Portrait of the Artist

Mary Cassatt, 1878

Revolving Self Portrait

Félix Nadar, 1865

Self Portrait

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1630-1635

Self Portrait

Anthony van Dyck, 1640-1641

Self Portrait

William Hogarth, 1735

Self Portrait

Angelica Kauffmann, 1770-1775

Self Portrait

Jacques-Louis David, 1794

Self Portrait

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1799

Self Portrait

Angelica Kauffmann, 1800

Self Portrait

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1815

Self Portrait

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1847

Self Portrait

Umberto Boccioni, 1910

Self Portrait

Giorgio Morandi, 1924

Self Portrait

Leonora Carrington, 1937-1938

Self Portrait

Aisha Galimbaeva, 1970

Self Portrait at age 16

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1791

Self Portrait in a Striped T-shirt

Henri Matisse, 1906

Self Portrait in Black Costume

Giorgio de Chirico, 1948

Self portrait in front of flowering trees

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1902

Self Portrait in the role of Jean Valjean

Paul Gauguin, 1888

Self Portrait with Black Dog

Gustave Courbet, 1842

Self Portrait with Black Dog

Gustave Courbet, 1842-1844

Self Portrait with Blue Cap

Armand Henrion, 1930

Self Portrait with Fedora

Edgar Degas, 1857-1858

Self Portrait with Lowered Head

Egon Schiele, 1912

Self Portrait with Pipe

Gustave Courbet, 1848-1849
More Themes in Art

Still Lifes

Quiet moments with simple objects

The Nude in Art

Getting out the skin


Hear it from the source

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