Research point: Artists’ self-portraits

Updated on 11 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

8 August 2016. This task was relatively specific with a set of questions to be answered while looking at five or six self-portraits with a special appeal to me. As with my research for exercise 1 of this project I decided that I would concentrate on more unusual self-portraits.

The questions are:

1. Does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist?
2. What is the purpose of the self-portrait?
3. What impression is the artist trying to convey?
4. What impression is actually conveyed?

To set the stage for a complex subject: Jeanne Ivy , researcher at the University of Maryland summarizes her own findings as follows: “Self-portraits, we have found, can be carefully staged to show the audience only what the artist wishes to project, or deeply revealing, inadvertently displaying feelings of anguish and pain. Self-portraits have been used to test new techniques, make a signature mark, launch into self-study, remember the past and as a way to release emotion … What do artists find when they search the mirror? For some, the self-portrait is a cathartic experience, a letting go of pent-up emotions. For others, the process reveals new insights about themselves and their work. For all artists, the self-portrait is an exploration, an opportunity to see beyond the image in the mirror and begin to search into the soul.”(Ivy, n.d., the paper has unfortunately been taken off the web).

Which is not a big surprise really.
So, setting off to see what some famous artists did in that respect.

Between 1888 and 1889 Paul Gauguin (1848-1903, France) went through, what it seems, a self-conscious phase of self-portraiture, a corresponding quote of his on the National Gallery of Art website reading “the face of an outlaw . . . with an inner nobility and gentleness,” a face that is “symbol of the contemporary impressionist painter” and “a portrait of all wretched victims of society.” (National Gallery of Art, 2016), as expressed with great skill in his 1889 “Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake” (Fig. 1a). Vincent Van Gogh produced a portrait of his friend in 1888 (Van Gogh, 1888) (Fig. 1b). While the chosen angle is completely different, it appears to me that not only characteristic facial traits like the hooked nose and moustache were seen by them both in a similar way, but also the perception of Gauguin’s personality as described in the above quote seems to be shared by both of them alike. Both paintings do not show Gauguin at work, but his own piece seems to serve as a caricature removed from a certain time or place, while Van Gogh seemed more interested in capturing the mood of the moment. Without the background information I might gain the impression of a certain kind of arrogance, which is especially visible in the self-portrait. But when I look at what I produce myself in a similar situation, this impression may be false and a result of the particular circumstances self-portraiture comes along with.

In 1906, Henri Matisse painted his “Self Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (Fig. 2a). Although Matisse often depicted himself as a correctly attired artist, if not overdressed for the occasion, he appears quite relaxed here – focused on the task while not visibly at work (I have a shirt like that myself and I associate it with holiday feelings :o)). The website published by the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhangen describes the attire as that typical of the fishermen in Southern France (Aagesen, 2017). As co-founders of Fauvism, Matisse and André Derain (1880-1954, France) painted each other in 1905/1906 in Southern France (Tate, 2009). When comparing Matisse’s piece with that of his Fauvist colleague, one might guess that the relaxed attitude seems to have been part of Matisse’s nature.

When doing the vice versa experiment, comparing a self-portrait by André Derain (c.1903) and a portrait by Matisse (1905), (Fig. 3a and 3b) the same seems to be true. Both are full of movement, quite loose and relaxed, but probably not overly joyful.

Despite the deplorable brevity of Egon Schiele’s life (1880-1918, Austria), a multi-layered relationship pervaded the artist’s friendship with Gustav Klimt (1862-1918, Austria). His famous “The Hermits” (Schiele, 1912) (Fig. 4) includes a whole world of emotion between the two (Leopoldmuseum, n.d.). Klimt on the other hand never painted a self-portrait in his long life, he is quoted to have explained this thus: “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” (Blatty, 2015).

Figure 4. Egon Schiele: “The Hermits”, 1912, oil on canvas. Source: Egon Schiele (1880-1918) [Public domain] via Wikiart
The above examples are of artists, who shared the same experiences and interests over a long period of time and seem to have known each other extremely well. This might explain the consonance. In order to see whether the opposite might turn up in one place or another I tried to find for my final example a pair of painters, whose views of themselves and each other appeared to clash.

10 August 2016. Francis Bacon (1909-1992, UK) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011, Germany/UK) appear to have been one such pair, although they seem to have spent most of their lives in very close contact before their friendship ended (Gayford, 2013). On the Metropolitan Museum’s website Francis Bacon is mentioned to have said, in 1975, of his intention behind painting self-portraits: “I loathe my own face. . . . I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve nobody else left to paint but myself.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d.). This is quite evident in his “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” (Bacon, 1979-80) (Fig. 5a). Lucian Freud on the other hand had a very realistic and friendly view of Bacon’s face (Freud, 1952) (Fig. 5b). Although the two artists shared their wild social lives and many views of the world, Bacon’s own life seems to have been shaken by tragedy more than Freud’s, which may make the difference.

And, once more, the vice versa experiment (unfortunately no larger public domain images are available): Bacon seems to have seem not just himself, but other people in the same light. First, a detail of Bacon’s drastic portrait of his friend in “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (Bacon, 1969) (Fig. 6a) and Freud’s kinder view of himself, despite the black eye (Freud, ) (Fig. 6b):

Not surprisingly, there are as many reasons for, and approaches to, self-portraits as there are in any other field of art. The only difference may be that our cultural background makes the access to oneself difficult for some. It is not everybody’s cup of tea to lay bare one’s soul for public scrutiny.


Aagesen, D. (2017) Henri Matisse (1869-1954) Self-Portrait, 1906[online]. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Bacon, F. (1969) Three Studies of Lucian Freud [oil on canvas triptych] [online]. Private collection. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2016]

Blatty, D. (2015) Gustav Klimt. Biography [online]. Bio. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Derain, A. (c.1903) Self-portrait in the Studio [oil on canvas] [online]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Derain, A. (1905) Henri Matisse [oil on canvas] [online]. Private Collection. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Freud, L. (1952) Francis Bacon [oil on copper] [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2016]

Freud, L. (c.1978) Self-Portrait With Black Eye [oil on canvas] [online]. Private collection. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2016]

Gauguin, P. (1889) Self-Portrait With Halo and Snake [oil on panel] [online]. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Gayford, M. (2013) Friends, Soulmates, Rivals: The Double Life of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud [online]. The Spectator, London, 14 December 2013. Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2016]

Ivy, J. (n.d.) Self-Portrait as Self-Study. The Exploration of Self: What Artists Find When They Search in the Mirror [online]. University of Maryland. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016, no longer available]

Leopoldmuseum (n.d.) Egon Schiele, The Hermits [online]. Leopold Museum, Vienna. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Matisse, H. (1905) André Derain [oil on canvas] [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Matisse, H. (1906) Self-Portrait [oil on canvas] [online]. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

National Gallery of Art (2016) Paul Gauguin. Self Portrait 1889. Overview [online]. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Schiele, E. (1912) The Hermits (oil on canvas] [online]. Private Collection. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]

Tate (2009) André Derain: Henri Matisse, 1905

[online]. T [Accessed 8 August 2016]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (n.d.) Three Studies for a Self-Portrait [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Available at: [Accessed 10 August 2016]

Van Gogh, V. (1888) Portrait of Gauguin [oil on burlap] [online]. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Available at: [Accessed 8 August 2016]


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