Lesson 3 - Self-Portrait

A 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 identities depicting themselves as either the main subject, or as import characters in their work. With better and cheaper mirrors, and the advent of the panel portrait, many painters, sculptors and printmakers have tried some form of self-portraiture. Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck of 1433 may well be the earliest know panel self-portrait. He painted a perareate 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.

Portrait of a Man in a Turban by Jan van Eyck

Types of self-portrait

A self-portrait may be a portrait of an artist, or a portrait included in a larger work, including a group portrait. Many painters are said to have included depiction 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 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 of group, often towards the edges or corner of the work and behind the main participants. Rubens’s The Four Philosophers (1611 - 1612) 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.

Rubens’s The Four Philosophers (1611 - 1612)

In the famous Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Jan van Eyck is probably one of two figures glimpsed in a mirror - a surprisingly modern conceit, The Van Eyck painting may have inspired Diego Velazquez to depict himself in full view as the painter creating Las Meninas (1656), as the Van Eyck hung in the palace in Madrid where he worked. This was another modern flourish, given that he appears as the painted and standing close to the King’s family group who were the supposed main subject of the painting.

Las Meninas (1656)

In what may be one of the earliest childhood self-portraits now surviving, Albrecht Durer 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 the Christ.

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

Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait

In the 17th Century, Rembrandt painted a range of self-portraits. In The Prodigal Son in the tavern, one of the earliest self portraits with family, the painting probably included 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 18th century onwards.

Lesson 3 - Task 1

Your task is to spend the rest of this lesson to either draw, paint, photograph or sculpt a self-portrait of yourself, use your knowledge and skills that you’ve learnt from either past or present experience.

If you decide to draw, paint or sculpt a self-portrait of yourself make sure you either use mirrors so you can look at yourself, or even use a current photo of you.

If you decide to take a self-portrait and use a camera to do it, make sure you head back to Lesson 2 and find out what lighting you would like to use of your self portrait.

Enjoy this last task as you have your test after this.