Obelisk Art History
Themes in Art

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:


Got questions, comments or corrections about Self-portraits? Join the conversation in the Obelisk chat room, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member to unlock exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts at the Obelisk Store.

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
Read More
At The Seaside — Self-portrait, Romaine Brooks

At The Seaside — Self-portrait

Romaine Brooks, 1914
Cubist Self-Portrait, Salvador Dalí

Cubist Self-Portrait

Salvador Dalí, 1923
David with the Head of Goliath (1610), Caravaggio

David with the Head of Goliath (1610)

Caravaggio, 1610
Double Isometric Self-Portrait, Jim Dine

Double Isometric Self-Portrait

Jim Dine, 1964
Frieda and Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo

Frieda and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo, 1931
Fulang-Chang and I, Frida Kahlo

Fulang-Chang and I

Frida Kahlo, 1937-1939
Girl (Self-portrait), Gwendolyn Knight

Girl (Self-portrait)

Gwendolyn Knight, 2004
Group of Artists, Marie Laurencin

Group of Artists

Marie Laurencin, 1908
I am in training, don't kiss me, Claude Cahun

I am in training, don't kiss me

Claude Cahun, 1927
I love color, Chéri Samba

I love color

Chéri Samba, 2010
I Only Have Eyes For You, Richard Hambleton

I Only Have Eyes For You

Richard Hambleton, 1980
Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, Bichitr

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings

Bichitr, 1615-1618
Lovers, Egon Schiele


Egon Schiele, 1914
Marie Laurencin, Cecilia de Madrazo and the Dog Coco, Marie Laurencin

Marie Laurencin, Cecilia de Madrazo and the Dog Coco

Marie Laurencin, 1915
Ma’an, Ali Al Jabri


Ali Al Jabri, 1979
Medallion, Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein)


Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), 1936
My Nurse and I, Frida Kahlo

My Nurse and I

Frida Kahlo, 1937
Myself: Portrait – Landscape, Henri Rousseau

Myself: Portrait – Landscape

Henri Rousseau, 1890
Night, Ferdinand Hodler


Ferdinand Hodler, 1890
People Near Boat, Edward Mitchell Bannister

People Near Boat

Edward Mitchell Bannister, 1893
Personage (Autoportrait), Robert Motherwell

Personage (Autoportrait)

Robert Motherwell, 1943
Portrait of a Collagist, Benny Andrews

Portrait of a Collagist

Benny Andrews, 1989
Portrait of a Woman, Catharina van Hemessen

Portrait of a Woman

Catharina van Hemessen, 1548
Portrait of an Old Man, El Greco

Portrait of an Old Man

El Greco, 1595-1600
Portrait of the Artist, Mary Cassatt

Portrait of the Artist

Mary Cassatt, 1878
Revolving Self Portrait, Félix Nadar

Revolving Self Portrait

Félix Nadar, 1865
Self Portrait, Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Self Portrait

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1630-1635
Self Portrait, Anthony van Dyck

Self Portrait

Anthony van Dyck, 1640-1641
Self Portrait, William Hogarth

Self Portrait

William Hogarth, 1735
Self Portrait, Angelica Kauffmann

Self Portrait

Angelica Kauffmann, 1770-1775
Self Portrait, Jacques-Louis David

Self Portrait

Jacques-Louis David, 1794
Self Portrait, Joseph Mallord William Turner

Self Portrait

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1799
Self Portrait, Angelica Kauffmann

Self Portrait

Angelica Kauffmann, 1800
Self Portrait, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

Self Portrait

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1815
Self Portrait, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Self Portrait

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1847
Self Portrait, Umberto Boccioni

Self Portrait

Umberto Boccioni, 1910
Self Portrait, Giorgio Morandi

Self Portrait

Giorgio Morandi, 1924
Self Portrait, Leonora Carrington

Self Portrait

Leonora Carrington, 1937-1938
Self Portrait, Aisha Galimbaeva

Self Portrait

Aisha Galimbaeva, 1970
Self Portrait at age 16, Joseph Mallord William Turner

Self Portrait at age 16

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1791
Self Portrait in a Striped T-shirt, Henri Matisse

Self Portrait in a Striped T-shirt

Henri Matisse, 1906
Self Portrait in Black Costume, Giorgio de Chirico

Self Portrait in Black Costume

Giorgio de Chirico, 1948
Self portrait in front of flowering trees, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self portrait in front of flowering trees

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1902
Self Portrait in the role of Jean Valjean, Paul Gauguin

Self Portrait in the role of Jean Valjean

Paul Gauguin, 1888
Self Portrait with Black Dog, Gustave Courbet

Self Portrait with Black Dog

Gustave Courbet, 1842
Self Portrait with Black Dog, Gustave Courbet

Self Portrait with Black Dog

Gustave Courbet, 1842-1844
Self Portrait with Blue Cap, Armand Henrion

Self Portrait with Blue Cap

Armand Henrion, 1930
Self Portrait with Fedora, Edgar Degas

Self Portrait with Fedora

Edgar Degas, 1857-1858
Self Portrait with Lowered Head, Egon Schiele

Self Portrait with Lowered Head

Egon Schiele, 1912
Self Portrait with Pipe, Gustave Courbet

Self Portrait with Pipe

Gustave Courbet, 1848-1849
More Themes in Art
Boats, Themes in Art


Still Lifes, Themes in Art

Still Lifes

Quiet moments with simple objects

Ancient Classics, Themes in Art

Ancient Classics

A good story never gets old

Obelisk uses cookies to measure site usage, helping us understand our readers' interests and improve the site. By continuing to browse this site you agree to the use of cookies. Cookie Policy