UNUSUAL SELF PORTRAITS
A look at some unconventional self-representations in art history
Writing a recent post about my new discovery – the Peale family of artists from nineteenth century Massachusetts I came across a striking self portrait by Rembrandt Peale. The main reason it’s unusual was that sitters were not commonly depicted wearing glasses – which did after all advertise a physical weakness. The reason for this exception may be that Peale’s father, the artist and general Renaissance man Charles Willson Peale counted optometry amongst his many interests and had made a number of spectacles – perhaps including this one worn by his son.
Here’s another of my favourite self portraits, by the accomplished artist George Richmond from 1840. I can’t find any information about why he is shading his eyes (perhaps just to demonstrate his penetrating gaze?). Richmond produced portraits of many eminent English men and women of the nineteenth century, including Charlotte Brontë. He was a very talented draughtsman.
This is one of my very favourite self portraits. It’s by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, painted in 1638 and entitled Self Portrait As The Allegory Of Painting. When men made portraits of women during this (and later periods) they were never like this – even if the painting was of that rare species: the professional female artist, they would usually not be actually engaged in the act of painting, as here. Even when they are (one thinks of Manet’s Portrait of Eva Gonzales) the act of painting would never appear such an effort of concentration, as it does here. Manet has Gonzales painting flowers (considered a suitable subject for a woman), whilst here we are unable to see Gentileschi’s subject but may assume it was one of her heavyweight religious subjects. Gonzales sits demurely, her pretty dress on full view and accentuated by a flower that has fallen at her feet, whilst Gentileschi’s body and face turns to the canvas, denying the viewer any voyeurism. Her hair is messily but practically tied back, sleeves rolled up. The composition with Gentileschi’s arm cutting across the canvas is original and daring, whilst the very title of the painting with it’s classical illusion makes clear her professional ambition. This is no amateur flower painter.
Three extraordinary portraits next, from Joseph, Baron Ducreux, an eighteenth century French nobleman. He was a favourite at the court of Louis XVI but survived the Revolution and resumed his career afterwards. His fascination with physiognomy is the reason behind his extraordinary self portraits which explore the range of facial expressions
and are so far away from the usually serious and sober portrait pose. Below is his Self Portrait In The Guise Of A Mocker, now made famous by the internet, from 1793. He was perhaps not the most technically gifted painter but there are nothing like these unconventional portraits in the whole of art history (with the exception of the Dutch tradition of tronies, with which Ducreux’s works share a quality of cariacature) and there has never been such an attempt to describe the character of the sitter. I wonder what the contemporary audience made of them.
Below: Ducret’s Le Discret from 1790. I think you’d translate discret somewhere between ‘discreet’ and ‘quiet’, in this context? Somebody who can keep a secret.
On the subject of tronies – a head study intended to depict a particular emotional state or figure type rather than a specific identifiable person – Rembrandt van Rijn made a number of self portrait etchings in this style. He also made this surprising self portrait in the style of a tronie: it’s known as Self Portrait, Laughing and was completed in 1628. Painters executed these types of studies by pulling faces and looking in the mirror.
Another unusual effort from the seventeenth century is this by the still-life painter Pieter Claesz: Vanitas With Violin and Glass Ball from 1625.
Seems like just a still life? Look at the glass ball with the little distorted figure of the artist at his easel reflected in the glass globe and you realise it’s also a clever self-portrait – the artist showing off his skill.
Rembrandt wasn’t the only artist to practise facial expressions by painting himself in the act of pulling an unusual face. This is a self portrait in the Romantic tradition (concerned with expressing emotional and psychological states of the individual) by French artist Gustave Courbet from 1845, known as The Desperate Man. Known for his independence, Courbet bridged the gap between Romanticism and Impressionism and by the mid nineteenth century was producing paintings in the ‘realist’ style, with his unsentimental portrayals of the hard life and difficult work of the poor. He painted himself in a variety of different guises.
By the Post-Impressionist period with art tradition broken away from convention and the role of the artist to subjectively reflect his inner feelings and not just ‘objective’ reality, it might be argued that nearly all modernist self portraits were pretty ‘unusual’ from here on it. This art work by Paul Gauguin from 1889 is still a bit of a shock however. A self portrait as a vase is unusual enough (but not unheard of – for example the tradition of the ‘Toby Jug’, but here Gauguin represents himself as a severed head, the gory detail exaggerated with the use of a red glaze dripping down the neck to the base. One imagines it might be in part an illusion to the popular painting subject of John The Baptist, beheaded by Salome, but there might be a more prosaic explanation behind this slightly gruesome piece. In December 1888, Gauguin had apparently attended the execution of a convicted murderer named Prado by guillotine. He and Van Gogh had been following the trial with huge interest and were fascinated by the lurid details. Maybe there’s some kind of allusion to the injury (the severed ear) sustained by Van Gogh which some historians now believe was actually inflicted by Gauguin during a fight between the two friends.
Finally, the tradition of trompe l’œil provided many an unusual self portrait, as artist sought to deceive their viewing public that what they were seeing was really real. In this article on trompe l’œil you can see some fascinating paintings including Gerrit Dou’s Painter With Pipe and Book from 1646 in which the artist nonchalantly leans out of a window behind a curtain, entering our world.