Self-portraits of artists are much like how a writer pens down his or her autobiography. Ultimately, one can connect the dots and map the life journey of an artist through self-portraits made at different times in an artist’s life. Many self-portraits will force the viewer to question why did the artist portray himself/herself as happy, sad, strange or stoic? Their stories are engaging because they are not stagnant – the artists paint a chapter in their life which is dynamic and moving for the viewer.
Eikowa looks at some famous artists self-portraits and shares with the reader their personal journeys.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida was a Mexican social activist and an artist who was known for her self-portraits. She was a beautiful, intelligent, talented woman who spoke of her struggles and pain through her portraits. In her time, she dressed in bold bright colours and pretty headgears which made her stand apart from the crowd. Her face was very expressive and her eyebrows very prominent. She was honest and unapologetic in representing herself the way she was. Her upper-lip hair, her joined eyebrows, the middle parting of her hair or way she wore it – was depicted as it was and nothing was ever glossed over or changed. She said, “I am my own muse, the subject I know best.”During her lifetime she made 143 paintings out of which 55 were self-portraits.
In 2006, Frida’s 1943 “Roots” was sold for a record for USD 5.6 million. In this self-portrait, the artist is communicating her desire for children. Due to her health issues, she was not able to conceive. The roots bearing leaves come out of her reclined body and move towards the parched earth but begin to darken and dry out. She herself is wearing an orange dress, showing a certain sense of vitality, positivity, which seems to be overtaken by the negativity of the barren land. Notice that leaves near her body are green, but as soon as they begin to grow, the just die or darken out. They also have veins extending out of them which are red – just like the blood veins in our bodies. Frida’s body posture seemed relaxed – with a pillow under her arm and her hair open. There seems to be a certain comfort or acceptance of her not being able to bear children.
She had terrible back aches due to an accident, for which she had to wear braces to recover. This famous semi-nude portrait which shows the spinal brace and numerous nails pinned on her body. Her pain is shown by the rain of tears coming from her eyes. The nails are placed in such a way as if to show the viewer where she was hurting.
Another self-portrait where she is seen with a thorn necklace, a monkey, a cat and a hummingbird was symbolic of her pain and endurance. She is bleeding from her neck but is stoically bearing the pain. Here the monkey, the cat and the hummingbird are all coloured in black symbolizing a dark time in her life. They also might be a representation of objects/people that she thought, could have given her some pleasure in life but were giving her pain instead. The painting is beautifully set against a background of lush green plants. The details of the actions of the animals – the cat staring at the viewer, the monkey holding onto the necklace as if to be holding her lovingly on a leash made of thorns and the hummingbird are so still that they seem menacing. The luminescent dragonflies at the top of the painting symbolizing change and self-realization – are riveting, to say the least.
One of her more famous oil paintings is called the “ The Two Fridas” where she is shown as a traditional woman dressed in white and the other is a modern woman. The Frida in white has her heart ripped with a pair surgical scissors, whereas the modern Frida is sitting as if unaffected. Both are holding hands and are, supporting each other. Painted right after her divorce, the stormy clouds show her state of mind.
Another self-portrait is of her dressed as a man with her hair strewn all over the floor of the painting. She has her hair shorn and gives a sideways glance full of thought, disturbed, and not being able to meet the gaze of the viewer. Her choice of clothes for this portrait shows her masculine side which makes the statement that she is strong enough to know that her husband does not seem to love her anymore and that she is to take care of herself, be the man in her life. She insinuates the same by putting on the painting musical notes which say, “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” She cut her hair in real life too, post her divorce.
Frida was vocal about her trials and tribulations. Bearing them was not easy for her but she was full of life and did not give up on painting till the end of her days.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941)
Amrita Sher-Gil’s self-portraits were as bold, as free spirited as was her personality. She revelled in her feminine grace and energy. More importantly, she had been fascinated with the female form and some of her first few sketches were of female nudes. Amrita seems to have been very close to her mother in her personality as her letters suggest and was captured in black and white photographs endlessly by her father, for her beauty. Sher-Gil took herself very seriously from a very young age and that reflected in her art and her communication with those around her. Her opinions seemed right to her for she was unrepentant and even silenced her critics by her retorts. In the true sense of the word, Amrita was cosmopolitan in her outlook as her travels and her Indo-Hungarian heritage gave her the best of both worlds.
Barely 21 years old, she made a clarion call to the world, showcasing her coming of age as a global artist with the Self Portrait of a Tahitian.’ Her inspiration seems to have come from the painter Paul Gauguin. She admired Gaugin and a lot of her initial work shows a distinct post- Impressionist influences. Gauguin was also known as a great artist and for his life in and paintings of Tahiti and its people. Amrita’s self-portrait as a Tahitian was dedicated to Gauguin. This semi-nude, earthy portrait was closely examined by UCLA Associate Professor of Art History Saloni Mathur who opines that this painting is a departure from Gauguin’s overtly sexual portrayal of Tahitian women. Ms Mathur also points out to the painting’s background of Japanese aesthetics – which to her seemed like a “was making an allusion to Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Père Tanguy,” which includes Japanese figures in the background as well.” The shadow in the painting behind her is clearly of a man’s – which might be referring to the men behind her inspiration for this painting. This was her last work in France. She soon travelled to India to begin her artistic journey there.
When she came to India her style underwent a drastic change and her focus shifted from herself to the Indian way of life. Her style of painting too underwent a change. She went from a western way of painting, where frantic brushstrokes were used and were replaced by flatter lines, unhurried strokes and interesting earthy hues. “Art historian and cultural studies analyst Geeta Kapur observed that Amrita had feminized Indian art. Her female forms demanded attention. They were both sensuous and vulnerable.” She seems to have incorporated the earthy hue used by Gauguin in his portraits of Tahitian women – but the style of her paintings surpasses that of Gauguin.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
He expressed in a letter to his sister-in-law, Jo that he should think of accepting his work as that of a ‘madman’ instead of an artist. Vincent began to paint in 1881, at the age of 28 and did not stop until he died at the age of 37. He only sold one painting in his lifetime called the “Red Vineyard.” During this period he made 2100 paintings out of which 30 paintings were self-portraits. These coincided with important life events.
Below are two important paintings with respect to important events in his life. The self-portrait in blue hues was painted in Paris in 1889 where he met many other famous artists. The melancholic blue is contrasted with his hair which imprints in our minds- the image of Van Gogh. His flaming red hair is beautifully contrasted against the free flowing blue color. Later on in his life, he would be referred to as the “fou roux” (the redheaded madman) by the townspeople of Arles. In the portrait, he seems to be thinking of something, even though his face is placid. The rhythmic spiralling paint behind and his slightly wrinkled brow seems to be questioning the viewer.
The one on the right is titled “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” and belongs to the time when he cut off his ear during an altercation with the famous artist Paul Gauguin. He was reported to have delusions and was considered mentally unstable. The painting frame seems cluttered with a door, a partial window; through which one can see a fence. There is a Japanese woodblock print with Mt Fuji and some Japanese women in the background. Everything in the background and his ‘Yellow House’ is still. But Van Gogh’s image is speaking in myriad sentences in this painting. His usually uncovered head, now has a blue with black fur cap, his beard has been shaved and his eyebrows look sparse and his sharp features look even more pronounced (probably gaunt due to hospitalization and ill health post his ear-cutting episode). His black overcoat seems to be alive with brush strokes going in even vertical lines. The painting is a mirror image of his, as he had cut off his left ear, and in the painting, it is shown to the right. Van Gogh’s expression is less questioning; calmer as compared to his other self-portraits. His doctors encouraged him to express himself and this was painted 2 weeks post his accident.
His style of painting was unique and even though he took inspiration from the impressionist painters, his paintings did not become abstract or blend in with the paints as if to lose their form or transform to have a dream like quality. He kept his outlines thick and that highlighted the subject against a fluid background. His paintings had colors which seemed to swirl around in shapes and patterns which looked almost on fire, radiant or radiating light. His brilliance as an artist is such that one feels uplifted and transported to another time when looking at his paintings.
Showcasing his talent in his self-portraits he used various methods and techniques. The rhythm in his paintings is precise, each stroke in consonance with the other. This method required a lot of physical effort from him. The third self-portrait to the extreme right showcases the technique of pointillism. This self-portrait was made in the early years in Paris (1887), where he was experimenting with pointillism. Here Van Gogh used dots of colors to make the painting. He seems to have an instinctual understanding of colours which come alive on the canvas. He contrasts the deep green with reds, yellows, greens and the background is a black on which these hues are being used.
Throughout his life, he dedicated himself to art, despite his financial and mental condition. He is considered one of the greatest artists that this world has ever seen.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
This Spaniard was the most influential artist of the 20th century. A child prodigy, he had mastered the classical way of painting by the age of 14. Due to his prolific interests, Picasso kept experimenting and one can see myriad styles in his paintings. He said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Picasso thus kept pushing the boundaries of what the world could call art. To him he wasn’t creating, he was only learning.
Below is a progression of his self-portraits. Beginning with the one where as a young boy of 15, he drew himself in the classic western way and the graduating to modern art where the 25-year-old Picasso drew himself emanating an aura of stability and intelligence in his gaze. The parting of his hair and his small chin draws the attention of the viewer. Picasso was a handsome man and he portrayed himself so in his earlier self-portraits. However, his self-portrayal skews as his method evolves. In other paintings the eyes conjoin, his fingers balloon, and his face distorts till the point one cannot see his face as it really was. The only proof that the painting is his was signalled by the method or the art used to make the portrait. At the age of 56, he drew a charcoal sketch of himself, caricature-like, and modern. At the age of 90, he created a myriad hued painting with elements of cubism and modern art. Here one can see that the sense of proportion has gone awry and his image is completely distorted. The background is dark interspersed with whites and pinks to form features. Thick lines outline the face and the mouth. Also, the last painting was done at the age of 90, in a neo-expressionist style. One can see a gaunt Picasso with haunted wide eyes a shrivelled mouth as if to portray that he is unable to speak or express himself. His upper body seems to be bereft of clothes and one can see his bony shoulders popping up distinctly indicating his advanced age. This style was better understood post his demise and before that, it was rubbished and ridiculed by critics.
During his lifetime, Picasso created a large body of work – 50,000 pieces of different types of art. His work sells for millions today. Read more about the life and works of Picasso here.
Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Salvador Dali was an avant-garde artist who brought Surreal masterpieces to life. He pushed the boundaries of reality and used his dreams to make fantastic paintings. He delved into his subconscious and dreams to produce art in real life. He used many objects as symbols in his paintings to express his message. He was known for deliberately meditating on objects of his choice or staring at them for hours at the end before there could be a subconscious connection, either through daydreaming or sleeping or getting a dream during his sleep. He was a ‘master visualizer’ and he would file these images away for his work.
His physical appearance garnered a lot of attention along with his art. His personality was bold and in sync with his being a Surrealist. He always made bizarre appearances in parties – could be a weird dress or some accessory which seemed out of place and shocked his friends.
Dali’s self-portraits are exactly like his other paintings-surreal. Riveting paintings, one can spend a lot of time analyzing his fantastical self-portraits. The first one, among the pictures below, was made in 1941 called the ‘Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon,’ where his face is portrayed as a mask on crutches with fried bacon beside it. The eyebrows are elongated, the moustache is shortened, the eyes and the mouth are just dark spaces with ants crawling beside them. This painting was a take on the organic decaying nature of life inspired by his breakfast (which had runny cheese on bread). He created his face, soft, like the cheese. The crutches symbolize public support and how it was what was holding up his image. The piece of bacon is symbolic of the flayed skin of St Bartholomew which was painted by Michelangelo in his The Last Supper. Dali considered the bacon as a part of his skin.
Salvador Dali created a “Self Portrait Sun Dial.” He cast this in cement and gifted to Pains Delices, interestingly called the Bagel Place café, now located on Rue Saint-Jacques. “The flames Dali shows us above the eyebrows symbolize the intense sun endured by those who made the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage.” Dali, in his numerous surreal paintings, depicted ‘Time’ as watches melting away. This project could have been of particular interest to Dali as one of his favourite depictions is that of ‘Time’.
‘Self Portrait with Raphaelesque Neck’ is another intriguing piece. He drew this as an homage to his favourite painter Raphael. Only seventeen at that time, he had kept long sideburns, his hair was neither long nor too short. The backdrop is Cadaques, Spain. He would return to the spot every day at the same time to capture the light and shadows made by the sunlight. He looks young and his blue eyes are full of pride. His chin tilts slightly upwards to give him an air of importance. He was just a student when he painted this self-portrait. Interestingly this is devoid of all symbolism, except for the Raphalesque neck. The bronze coloured self-portrait was made in 1921, again during his student years. The light makes him look handsome as well as arrogant and his long sideburns and hair are prominently visible. He deliberately showcased himself this way as the need to dress and look a particular way was deeply embedded in him. Throughout his life, he kept updating his outer appearance which also reflected in his self-portraits.
You many read more about the Dalinian Symbols here.
Henri Matisse (1869- 1954)
Henri Matisse’s journey is that of fortuitous chance. He had set out to become a lawyer, but became an artist instead! John Peter Russell, an Australian artist, introduced Henri to the impressionist painters and Van Gogh’s painting. Matisse was blown away by Van Gogh’s style and subsequently, his own method of creating art underwent a change. He adopted the divisionism philosophy in which the colours are ‘separated into individual dots or patches.’ This extended into pointillism which Henri used extensively in his paintings.
With the passage of time, Matisse became attracted to bold colours and he used less rigorous and flatter brush strokes which produced much more relaxed visuals than pointillism. He also used these bold colours on subjects in his paintings without thinking about its natural colours. This style also became known as Fauvism and Matisse became its foremost proponent. After a series of travels abroad, he minimized the use of black as a colour on his canvas. The result was bright happy paintings. He also believed that “An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc.”
He was reputed to be a disciplined artist. His face, in portraits, looks stern almost angry. How did Matisse want to be remembered? He said, “A picture must possess a real power to generate light and for a long time now I’ve been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light.” The first painting is a self-portrait done in 1906. He has depicted himself in a simple striped shirt, mostly worn by the fishermen of the area. He looks fierce in his expression and his young face is covered in flat coarse brushstrokes with interesting color highlights. The background has been left white and then colours like blue green and black have been used around the figure which draws the eyes to his face and forehead. One refocuses on the artist time and again and there lies the master stroke of Matisse. Many critics believe that Matisse is presenting himself as a ‘human being rather than an artist’ in this painting.
The second self-portrait is that of an older Matisse, painted in 1935. Here despite the use of the color red, the mood of the painting is serious, the room background divided in black or white. Even his palette has black white and red in it. Matisse did not use bright colours for his suit, instead chose a sombre brown with black outlines. Matisse seems to have a patient gaze. Also to note, instead of his work overalls he chose to dress up in a suit for this portrait – a rather formal painting when compared to the one he did in 1916.
The last self-portrait is made by charcoal on paper made in 1937. A much mature Matisse, he looks older and hawk-like. During this period he used bold colours and his style was now distinct from other artists. It is surprising to see how he has removed color from his self-portraits, otherwise incorporating color into his other works. Again, his gaze is direct, his hairline receded and he seems to be looking on as if responding to the call of the viewer.
Matisse’s brilliance lies in being a master colorist for which the world will always remember him.
Viewing a self-portrait is like tracing a personal journey of the artist’s life. Each journey is different and one can learn so many things that one never knew existed. One artist’s struggles, achievements, creative prowess inspires ordinary human beings to become a part of their journey long after the artist has gone. It can inspire creativity and inspire others to make their own journey as they want it to be. These self-portraits are windows for us to look into the eyes of some great artists of all times.