If you’ve visited the Uffizi in Florence, you’ll be aware of its unique collection of self-portraits of artists. Although many of these are exhibited on the walls of the Vasari Corridor, currently closed for renovation and only ever open to privately arranged tours, these are part of the Medici Collection, with self-portraits going back over four centuries. In more recent times, it has been a mark of recognition for any painter to be invited by the Uffizi to paint themself for inclusion.
Self-portraits of painters can be among their most fascinating and insightful works. This weekend I dip into my collection (far smaller than the Uffizi’s!) and show a small selection of some of the more interesting if not poignant.
Before the advent of photography in the early nineteenth century, the only way that you could see your own face was in a mirror, or on another reflective surface. Unless a painter carefully arranged two mirrors to restore the chirality (left and right sides) of their image, this meant that the face that they painted was a mirror image of reality. Thus, painting your self-portrait was considerably more challenging than those of others.
One of Sofonisba Anguissola’s earliest surviving paintings is also one of her most remarkable and ingenious, her Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi, painted in 1550 when she was just eighteen. This double portrait is fascinating in her depiction of two left hands on the portrait which Campi is shown working on: one reaches up to meet his right hand, which holds a brush, and the other holds her own brushes.
Other artists concealed their self-portraits among groups of figures, and left viewers to speculate whether a likeness was intended to be the artist. For the pioneer still life painter Clara Peeters there was a more ingenious place to show her face.
In 1612, her still life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour (1612) reveals multiple miniature self-portraits reflected in the gold cup at the right. These are shown more clearly in the detail below.
Other artists made no secret of their appearance. About eighty drawn, etched or painted self-portraits of Rembrandt have survived, tracing the changes in his fortune during an eventful life. My choice is more unusual, as it shows the artist at the peak of success and happiness.
Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son from about 1635, when he was just short of being thirty years old, shows his young wife Saskia van Uylenburgh sitting on his lap as he raises a large fluted glass of beer at the viewer. It shows a young man revelling in his success, as they were moving into their first house in fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam.
There’s a little more uncertainty as to whether Artemisia Gentileschi’s brilliant painting of the Allegory of Painting (c 1638-9) is a self-portrait. This striking angle of view can be accounted for if this was a self-portrait composed using two mirrors, one placed above and on the left of the painter, the other directly in front of her, where she is gazing so intently. If so, it was particularly ingenious because the reflection in the second mirror would have normal chirality (left and right would not be reversed).
However it has been suggested that this isn’t a self-portrait, in which case her choice of view would have been most unusual. It’s believed to have been painted during Gentileschi’s stay in London, possibly for the King, Charles I, as it appears to have passed straight into the Royal Collection, where it has remained ever since (apart from a short absence prior to the Restoration in 1660).
The most radical and impressive of Gustave Courbet’s early paintings is The Desperate Man from about 1843, in which he grimaces wildly at his own canvas. Augmented by his signature in bright red, it might as well have been his manifesto.
A self-assured painter from the beginning, the precocious Marie Bashkirtseff set her sights high and had the ability and drive to paint very well indeed. Her early Self-portrait with Palette from 1880 was painted in the same year that she first had a painting accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon, and she was successful again in subsequent years until her death from tuberculosis just four years later, at the age of twenty-five.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The End of the Pose from 1886 is one of his long series of unusual compound paintings, which are at once self-portraits of the artist as a sculptor, studies in the relationship between a model and their sculpted double, and further forays into issues of what is seen, visual revelation, and truth.
Here, while Gérôme is cleaning up, his model is seen covering up her sculpted double with sheets, as she remains completely naked. Apart from various diversionary entertainments, including a couple of stuffed birds and a model boat, there is a single red rose on the wooden platform on which the model and statue stand. Presumably this is a symbol of thanks from the artist to his model.
Charles Laval has been almost completely forgotten now, but at the height of his career friends like Vincent van Gogh rated him highly. Other close friends included Paul Gauguin and Paul Bernard. When van Gogh asked several of his friends, including Gauguin, Laval, and Bernard, to send him their portraits, this was Laval’s response, which Vincent treasured and praised to his brother Théo.
The following year, Laval quarrelled with Gauguin over Bernard’s sister, an upset which almost stopped him from painting. After that his health declined quite rapidly, and in the spring of 1894, just after his 32nd birthday, he died from an illness complicated by his tuberculosis. Since his death, most of his paintings seem to have been lost, and several of those which have survived have been attributed to Paul Gauguin, perhaps in the hope of inflating their value.
Armand Guillaumin is another major nineteenth century French painter who has been lost in history. He first came to Paris in 1857 to work in a shop, but took evening classes in drawing with the aim of becoming a full-time artist. He attended the Académie Suisse in 1861, where he became friends with Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. To support his painting, he then worked for the Paris municipal services, at times digging ditches for three nights each week, and painting as much as he could in the daytime. He remained deeply poor until late in life.
In 1868, he left his service work, and painted blinds, as Renoir and Pissarro did at various times in their careers, but returned to municipal work in 1872. In that year, he painted in company with Pissarro and Cézanne near Pontoise. He showed three landscape paintings at the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, and participated in five more, in 1877 (the third), 1880 (fifth), 1881 (sixth), 1882 (seventh), and 1886 (eighth and last).
Paul Signac befriended him in 1884, and for a while Guillaumin mentored Signac as he was starting to paint en plein air. As a result, Guillaumin joined Signac’s group, and exhibited with them in December 1884, together with Seurat and Odilon Redon. During 1886-7, when Vincent van Gogh was living in Paris, he too became friends with Guillaumin, and visited him frequently.
Having endured his entire life in poverty, working while trying to find time to paint, in 1891 he won sufficient in a lottery to finally give him financial security, and then painted this self-portrait. However, by this time he had lost contact with his Impressionist friends, and it is usually considered that his paintings had become weak, and had lost their earlier attraction.