Project Six – Reasearch point: Self Portraits

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669)

Rembrandt did some quite some self portraits over the his artist life, starting at age 23 to his oldest as age 63. All of them are nearly the same angle. The earlier one still in his painting style of light and shadow with a single light source. One can really follow hie life, the turbulences. However it could be critical to interpret too much into a self-portrait in the context of history.
‘Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul’, 1661
Oil on canvas (91 × 77 cm)
[Online image] Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. Available from:,4 [Accessed 25 September 2015]
=> One example of how Rembrandt poses himself as the Apostle Paul. By that he conveys a message to the viewer not only about the Apostle but rather about himself and how he wants to be seen. The idea of masquerade and depicting different roles is a common theme up to contemporary artists (see Cindy Sherman).
REMBRANDT Harmensz. van Rijn_Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul _1661_SM‘Self Portrait at the Age of 63’, 1969
Oil on canvas (86 x 70.5 cm)
[Online image] London: National Gallery. Available from: [Accessed 25 September 2015]
=> One of the last paintings showing a reality and the marks of time. Compared to some earlier paintings it is a rather honest work, a reflection of his life. Reflection about oneself is a very common theme in self-portraits (see also Lucian Freud, Avoider Arikha)

Rembrandt, 1606 - 1669 Self Portrait at the Age of 63 1669 Oil on canvas, 86 x 70.5 cm Bought, 1851 NG221


Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

Similar to Rembrandt Van Gogh was making on a regular base self portraits, partly to train his skills  as the artist him/herself is quite available as a model. Van Gogh he always wanted to be seen as a portrait painter.
‘Self-Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel’, 1886

Oil on canvas (46.5 x 38.5 cm)
[Online image]  Available from: [Accessed 25 September 2015]
=> This self portrait is a showing the artist with the objects of the trade (easel, palette, brushes). This shows not only he profession of the artist but also emphazises the role of the artist in society.
GOGH, VINCENT van_Self-Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel_1886

– ‘Self-Portrait’, 1889
Oil on canvas (65 x 54 cm)
[Online image]  Available from: [Accessed 25 September 2015]
=> In one of his later self-portraits Van Gogh applies similar expressive brush strokes to this work as  to his landscape paintings. One can interpret the usage of colors and his mood. Nevertheless this work is quite a painterly approach.

GOGH, VINCENT van_Self portrait_1889


Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954):
Self portrait with monkey’, 1938 [Online image] Available from:
[accessed 23 July 2015]
=> Kahlo is a self-portraitist and most works are showing her in the same pose with various props surrounding her. In some works the proportions are a bit awkward. Kahlo tells a story about her and by that she created an image of herself for the outside of how she wanted to be seen.
KAHLO,FRIDA_self-portrait with monkey_1938_0


Tracey Emin (b. 1963)
Emin works mostly with installations but there are a few self-portraits in a kind of minimalistic expressive manner. This reminds me about my struggle with the moving figure, as simplification and reduction to the most expressive lines can work evenly as a standalone piece. Emin demonstrates this.
‘Sitting with you’, 2013
Print, etching (30.5 x 23.0 cm)
[Online image] [Accessed 26 September 2015]
EMIN, TRACEY_Sitting With You_2013


Avigdor Arikha (1929 – 2010)

-‘Self Portrait at the Press Seen Through a Mirror’, 1971
Etching (11 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches)

[Online image] [Accessed 26 September 2015]
=> In this work Arikha actually shows the mirror, the most important object to get a self-portrait done at all (not considering modern technology devices). By that the work becomes a subject of observation: On the one hand the artist need to scrutinise his image to obtain a certain believable picture and/or likeness. On the other hand the viewer observes the act of observation as such.


-‘Self-Portrait in a white vest’, 1987
Pastel (65 x x50cm)
[Online image] [Accessed 26 September 2015]
=> This depicting of the artist shows an expression of astonishment. Although it remains the open question about that he is astonished. By that the viewer gets an active role in observing the picture.

Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011)

=> These two self-portraits, both titled ‘Reflection‘, are showing the state of being of the artist at the time of making the picture. It shows a more inner view into the emotions and mood of the artist. In the work from 2002, the artist adds in the background the image of a canvas covered with abstract paint marks, quite in contrast to the figurative foreground.

What is a portrait? In Freud’s own words:

“I think a great portrait has to do with … the feeling and individuality and the intensity of the regard and the focus on the specific.”
quote from:Freud, Lucian ‘Freud at Work – In conversation with Sebastian Smee’, Jonathan Cape  p32.

Cindy Sherman (b.1954)
Sherman is a visual artist who embraces self portraiture in all its facette. Quite in an historic context as also Rembrandt did some portraits with make-up roles (see his ‘Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul’, 1661). She dresses her up, with at times awkward poses.

– ‘ Untitled No.224′, 1990
Colour photograph (122 x 96.5 cm)
[Online image] Available from: [Accessed 26 September 2015]

Sherman uses photography as her medium to explore social female roles. In the context of John Berger (see my research of his book ‘Ways of Seeing’) she paraphrases and even caricatures the way of how female in media are been seen. She stages herself with make-up and masquerade and with great self confidence into various roles that puts the viewer into at times unease situation. More about her portraits available at: [Accessed 26 September 2015]


  • Self portraits can emphasise the following themes:
    – Roles: Through depicting one self in other roles the self portraits adds a social dimension to the work. This opens up the way of how we see other people and question preconceived thoughts.
    – Props: Either showing the profession and environment of the artist’s life or to tell a story with a certain intention
    – Observation: through observation a figure is depicted. The act of observation as such can be a theme by itself.
    – Expression: by depicting a certain expression and/or action the self-portrait becomes  a narrative with at times open questions. The viewer can think about this in a more active role.
    – Reflection & Emotions: a self-portraits shows at times the emotions and feelings of the artist at the time of making. It tries to translate the inner world into a visual image.


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