Nowadays, we have a selfie photo. Well, that wasn’t the case back in the days. Yet, throughout the course of art history, self-portraiture has remained a highly praised skill and practice among leading artists. You can find self-portraits in almost every major art movement, from Renaissance to modern art and contemporary art period. Do you know which the most famous self-portraits are?
Let’s take a look. Some of these portraits explore the curious custom of representing one’s self through visual art. Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, Picasso, Van Gogh, all tried themselves in the art of self-portraiture.
The fun part is that before the Renaissance, artists were quite shy regarding selfies. After all, before the Renaissance, the human was not a subject in art. But after the 13th century, we saw a rise in the popularity of self-portraits.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most famous self-portraits.
The Desperate Man – Gustave Courbet
The original name is “Le Désespéré”, or Desperation. Gustave Courbet painted this self-portrait painting between 1843 and 1845. He made it during his stay in Paris, and now it remains in the private collection of the Conseil Investissement Art BNP Paribas.
Back in the 1940s, Courbet made a couple of portraits of his friends and clients. But he also made a couple of self-portraits. Besides Desperation, he also made a Self-Portrait with a Black Dog.
He was influenced by Zurbaran, Jose de Ribera, Velasquez, and Rembrandt. He came up with ideas after spending time in the Louvre and copying their works.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird – Frida Kahlo
Frida has a couple of self-portraits in her career. She got famous for self-portraiture, giving people access to her character and personality.
She made this one in 1940. It includes a black cat and a monkey. She made the picture after her divorce from Diego Rivera and at the end of her affair with photographer Nickolas Muray.
Fun fact: Muray bought the portrait shortly after it was painted, and it is now part of the Nickolas Muray collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
It is a rather small painting, showing Kahlo in a frontal position and directly confronting the viewer’s gaze. Kahlo used the picture to show her identification with indigenous Mexican culture. By using powerful iconography from Mexican culture, she shows herself in a tradition of rebellion against colonial forces.
Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk – Leonardo da Vinci
This portrait has seen its fair share of controversy and debate. There are many theories about the man actually in the picture. But the inscription at the bottom, added by a later hand, reads, “Leonardo da Vinci, portrait of himself as an old man”.
Some theories suggest Leonardo drew himself at about the age of 60. This portrait has been reproduced several times and it is now an iconic representation of Leonardo as a polymath or Renaissance Man.
The portrait itself depicts the head of an elderly man in three-quarter view, with his face turned towards the viewer.
Fun fact: many of Leonardo’s scholars and historians criticize the claim it represents Leonardo. Their main claim is that the picture depicts a man of a greater age than Leonardo achieved. For info, Leonardo died at the age of 67. And according to many claims, he made the drawing between 58 and 60 years of age.
Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear – Vincent van Gogh
This is one of the most famous portraits in art history. Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles in hopes of creating a community for artists to exist in mutual supportiveness and encouragement.
The story about this self-portrait painting and his bandaged ear is that Vincent cut off his left ear when tempers flared with another artist, Paul Gaugin. He began to hallucinate and suffered attacks in which he lost consciousness.
During that famous argument, Van Gogh had a seizure during which he threatened Gaugin with a razor, but then injured himself. After the incident, he made a self-portrait with his ear.
Some critics dismiss the painting as a fake or crude pastiche. But the painting is real.
The Two Fridas – Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous and recognizable artists in art history when it comes to self-portraits. This oil painting is one of her most notable. It is her first large-scale work.
Basically, it is a double self-portrait, depicting two versions of the famous painter. And it shows the duality of her character, tradition, history, and culture. One Frida wears a white European-style Victorian dress. And the second wears a traditional Tehuana dress.
It is one of the best paintings depicting her double heritage. Other theories suggest that the European Frida is the one rejected by her husband, Diego Rivera. And the Mexican one is the one adored by him.
Portrait of a Man in a Turban – Jan van Eyck
This painting has many names, including Portrait of a Man, Portrait of Man in a Red Turban, and a few more. In any case, it is a painting by Jan van Eyck made in 1443.
The inscription at the top of the panel was a common autograph for van Eyck. Yet, here it is unusually large and prominent. This is why people call it a self-portrait.
Like all of his portraits, it shows a sharp and detailed analysis of the subject. Typically for his work, the head is a little large compared to the torso’s size. It is a technique that shows the skill, economy, and speed of his best work.
Self-portrait – Van Gogh 1889
We had a self-portrait by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. But this one is his most famous one. Painted in 1889 as oil on canvas, now remains in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Considered to be his last self-portrait. Fun fact: he made self-portraits because he had no money to pay for models. Nowadays, his artwork is worth millions. But Van Gogh died in poverty, the way he lived most of his life.
Van Gogh sent it to his younger brother, the art dealer Theo, about this famous painting. He also sent him a letter, explaining, “You will need to study the picture for a time. I hope you will notice that my facial expressions have become much calmer, although my eyes have the same insecure look as before, or so it appears to me”.
Self-portrait as the allegory of painting – Artemisia Gentileschi
The famous painting is also known as Autoritratto in veste di Pittura or La Pittura. Painted by Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, it was probably produced during her stay in England between 1638 and 1639.
The scene depicts Artemisia painting herself. This in turn represented as the Allegory of Painting. It demonstrates rare feminist themes during a period women seldom held jobs. Her portrayal of herself as the epitome of the arts served as a bold feminist statement in the period.
Self-Portrait at Twenty Eight – Albrecht Dürer
Painted early in 1500, it is the last of his three painted self-portraits. Art historians and scholars agree it is the most personal and iconic of his self-portraits.
What makes it so special? Well, it resembles many earlier representations of Christ. There are many similarities with religious paintings, including symmetry, dark tones, and how the famous artist directly confronts the viewer.
Historians believe that Dürer believed that any Christian could be portrayed as imitating Christ.
Arnolfini Portrait – Jan van Eyck
Here is another painting by Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. There are other names for it, including Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, and many more.
It is an oil painting on an oak panel forming a full-length double portrait. It is widely considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art.
For this painting, the artist used the technique of applying several layers of thin translucent glazes, wanting to create a painting with an intensity of both tone and color.
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar – Rembrandt
Rembrandt made more than 40 self-portraits during his career. But this one remains his most famous and recognizable. The 1649 oil on canvas painting has been noted as a self-portrayal of subtle and somber qualities.
In this portrait painting, viewers can notice the stress and strain of Rembrandt’s life. The positioning of the head and torso are unusual among Rembrandt’s self-portrait artwork.