Selfies: self-portraits to cherish 2

Emily Carr (1871–1945), Self-portrait (1924-25), oil on paperboard, 39.4 x 44.9 cm, Emily Carr Trust. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these two articles looking at self-portraits, I ended with paintings of Charles Laval and Armand Guillaumin, who have now been largely forgotten. Today I start with the tragic story of the lost Nabi, Meijer Isaäc de Haan.

Meijer Isaäc de Haan (1852–1895), Self-portrait (c 1889-91), media and dimensions not known, stolen from Kunsthal Rotterdam on 16 October 2012, believed destroyed. Wikimedia Commons.

Today, the Dutch artist Meijer Isaäc de Haan is only known from this self-portrait from about 1889-91, together with a handful of other works. De Haan had been painting with Paul Gauguin and others at Le Pouldu, but by the end of the summer in 1890, he was running out of money. Gauguin hoped that he would travel with him to an exotic tropical island like Tahiti, but de Haan suddenly left.

He next surfaced in Paris, where he mourned the death of Theo van Gogh in early 1891. He seems at that time to have been involved with the Nabis, among whom he was dubbed le nabi hollandais, the Dutch Nabi. He vanished again, reappearing in the Netherlands two years later, in deteriorating health. He died from tuberculosis in Hattem, the Netherlands, on 23 October 1895, at the age of only 43.

His tragedy only worsened. Attempts to give his masterwork Uriël Acosta to the Rijksmuseum were unsuccessful, and the painting was (and remains) lost. His other work could only be disposed of for trivial sums, and has almost all been lost too. Had it not been for the few paintings which he left in his haste to depart from Le Pouldu, nothing at all would have survived. Thankfully, his daughter Ida, whom he never saw, kept those, but even she was unable to persuade a museum to take them, and they finally went to auction in 1959.

In a final cruel twist of fate, this self-portrait was among seven paintings stolen from the the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in 2012, and now believed to have been destroyed.

I move from some of the most obscure paintings of the nineteenth century to one of its most famous, Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Scream (1893), oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 91 × 73.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

By Edvard Munch’s own admission, the figure in the foreground of The Scream is the artist. This is its first version of 1893, painted using a mixture of oils, tempera and pastel on cardboard. Its landscape includes Oslo, its fjord with ships at anchor, and the surrounding hills.

Munch strongly associated this series with the notes that he had written to describe the feelings which built the image in his mind:
I was walking along a path with two friends. The sun was setting. I felt a breath of melancholy. Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped and leant against the railing, deathly tired, looking out across flaming clouds that hung like – blood and a sword over the deep blue fjord and town. My friends walked on – I stood there trembling with anxiety, and I felt a great, infinite scream pass through nature.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Self-Portrait in the Clinic (1909), oil on canvas, 100 × 110 cm, Bergen kunstmuseum, Bergen, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Munch painted other self-portraits, but one which I find most insightful is his Self-Portrait in the Clinic, which he made as he was recovering in early 1909. His use of colour is almost Fauvist: he portrays himself in dark clothing, still anxious and in recovery, but the room around him is formed of bold brushstrokes of raw colour. When he was able to return to Norway later that year, Munch’s health was much improved and he was less full of pessimism and anxiety.

Another artist who painted a strong series of self-portraits was the German painter Lovis Corinth.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Self-portrait with Skeleton (1896), oil on canvas, 66 × 86 cm , Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Wikipedia Commons.

Toward the end of his time living and painting in Munich, the skin of his face in his self-portraits had become more painterly, and non-flesh surfaces such as his shirt and the landscape background, as well as the skull, have clearly visible brushstrokes. A simple self-portrait was also not enough: he posed beside a skeleton, making the comparison between his living, fleshy face, and the fleshless skull next to it.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Self-Portrait in a White Coat (1918), oil on canvas, 105 × 80 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne. Wikimedia Commons.

Corinth suffered a major stroke in late 1911, and by the end of the Great War, when he was 60, he had aged markedly, with the receding hair and gaunt cheeks seen in his Self-Portrait in a White Coat (1918). Although his face and hand are as sketchy, his hair and left ear have been rendered more roughly still.

Gabriel von Max (1840–1915), Self-Portrait with Monkey (1910), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Austrian painter Gabriel von Max was unusual for his tender and personal relationships with the monkeys which he kept. Charles Darwin’s book The Descent of Man had been published in 1871, and von Max had a deep interest in anthropology, so by this time he would have been well aware of the proposal that monkeys and humans had common ancestors. His Self-Portrait with Monkey from 1910 shows the artist at the age of seventy, with one of his young apes.

Egon Schiele – another Austrian – was a brilliant artist who died far too young.

Egon Schiele (1890–1918), The Family (1918), oil on canvas, 150 x 160.8 cm, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Spring of 1918, his wife Edith became pregnant. I don’t know whether this was the stimulus for Schiele to revisit the theme of The Family, but the three figures here seem full of longing and aspiration. The father, surely a self-portrait, looks straight at the viewer. His wife, who doesn’t resemble Edith, stares slightly sadly down to the right. Her lips and nipples aren’t painted gaudy pink like those of his earlier nude models. Their young child peers out from mother’s legs, as if looking up at an object to the right.

When the influenza pandemic reached Vienna that autumn, Edith, now six months pregnant, fell ill on 19 October, and died on 28 October. Egon Schiele lasted another three days, before being overwhelmed by the virus and dying on 31 October 1918. He was only 28.

Some self-portraits precede a new start in an artist’s life and work. In 1913, the Canadian painter Emily Carr showed two hundred of her paintings of totems and villages of the First Nations in the Pacific North-West, but the exhibition flopped badly. Despite trying to enlist the support of the minister of education in British Columbia, her art had been rejected, even being refused by the new provincial museum.

Although Carr didn’t stop painting, she retreated to run a boarding house and rethink. In 1924, she met with Seattle artists, most importantly Mark Tobey, who helped her rebuild confidence in her art.

Emily Carr (1871–1945), Self-portrait (1924-25), oil on paperboard, 39.4 x 44.9 cm, Emily Carr Trust. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Self-portrait from 1924-25 shows her still suffering from her rejection. Most unusually for a self-portrait, she faces away from the viewer, and is working on a painting which is unrecognisably vague and formless.

A visit by Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada, made 1927 the turning point in Carr’s art. She was invited to join the Group of Seven in a major exhibition in Ottawa, and twenty-six of her oil paintings, together with pottery and hooked rugs made when running the boarding house, were shown there.

I close with another presumed self-portrait which literally ends them all.

Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Five to Twelve (c 1924), oil on paperboard, 79 x 33 cm, Nasjonalmuseet (purchased 1990), Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo.

Five to Twelve (c 1924) was one of Christian Krohg’s last paintings, showing himself with a long white beard, and almost bald, asleep in a chair underneath a pendulum clock. The face of the clock is completely blank, but the title tells us the time: it is ten minutes to midnight, very late in his life. The following year, Krohg retired as the director of the State Academy of Art, and died in Oslo a few months later.