Lesson 4 || Self-Portrait

self-portrait is a representation of an artist, drawn, painted, photographed, or sculpted by the artist. Although self-portraits have been made by artists since the earliest times, it is not until the Early Renaissance in the mid 15th century that artists can be frequently identified depicting themselves as either the main subject, or as important characters in their work. With better and cheaper mirrors, and the advent of the panel portrait, many painters, sculptors and printmakers tried some form of self-portraiture. Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck of 1433 may well be the earliest known panel self-portrait. He painted a separate portrait of his wife, and he belonged to the social group that had begun to commission portraits, already more common among wealthy Netherlanders than south of the Alps. The genre is venerable, but not until the Renaissance, with increased wealth and interest in the individual as a subject, did it become truly popular.

A self-portrait may be a portrait of the artist, or a portrait included in a larger work, including a group portrait. Many painters are said to have included depictions of specific individuals, including themselves, in painting figures in religious or other types of composition. Such paintings were not intended publicly to depict the actual persons as themselves, but the facts would have been known at the time to artist and patron, creating a talking point as well as a public test of the artist's skill.

In the earliest surviving examples of medieval and renaissance self-portraiture, historical or mythical scenes (from the Bible or classical literature) were depicted using a number of actual persons as models, often including the artist, giving the work a multiple function as portraiture, self-portraiture and history/myth painting. In these works, the artist usually appears as a face in the crowd or group, often towards the edges or corner of the work and behind the main participants. Ruben's The Four Philosophers (1611–12)is a good example. This culminated in the 17th century with the work of Jan De Bray. Many artistic media have been used; apart from paintings, drawings and prints have been especially important.

In what may be one of the earliest childhood self-portraits now surviving, Albrecht Dürer depicts himself as in naturalistic style as a 13-year old boy in 1484. In later years he appears variously as a merchant in the background of Biblical scenes and as Christ.


Leonardo da Vinci may have drawn a picture of himself at the age of 60, in 1512. The picture is often straightforwardly reproduced as Da Vinci's appearance, although this is not certain.

In the 17th Century, Rembrandt painted a range of self-portraits. The Prodigal Son in the Tavern (c1637), one of the earliest self-portraits with family, the painting probably includes Saskia, Rembrandt's wife, one of the earliest depictions of a family member by a famous artist. Family and professional group paintings, including the artist's depiction, became increasingly common from the 17th Century onwards.

 Activity:

Note that these questions will be on your test in Lesson 6.


1. What is a self-portrait?

At what age (a) and what year did Leonardo da Vinci draw a picture of himself?
a). Age:
22 60 85 96
b). Year: 1218 1824 1512 1942