Obelisk Art History
Themes in Art

Self-portraits
The canvas mirror

Self-portraits, Themes in ArtSelf-Portrait, Yawning

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:


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Reed Enger, "Self-portraits, The canvas mirror," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 13, 2015; last modified October 03, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/subjects/self-portrait/.

Further reading atkhanacademy.org
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