The modern self-portrait began in Renaissance Florence when artists first asserted their identity, while playing a cameo part, by placing their own image as observer or participant into religious and historical narratives. In the fifteenth century Northern realism brilliantly fused with Italian humanism to emphasize the value of the individual personality and to place a high value on the portrait. As the artist gained social status, his image increased in importance. Sandro Botticelli’s handsome, even arrogant image—looking remarkably like Burt Lancaster—appears on the extreme right in The Adoration of the Magi (1475). As the artist decided to play a leading role, rather than be an interesting face in the crowd, the self-portrait came into its own and became a new genre. It was an occasion for psychological exploration, portrayal of character, projection of personality and definition of selfhood, a statement of individuality and self-awareness, an affirmation of the artist’s worth and fame, a challenge to oblivion and bid for immortality.

Instead of portraying, even flattering or satirizing, the subjects who commissioned his work, the self-portrait artist concentrates on himself and establishes a bond with the spectator. He encourages you to look at him with the same intensity as he stares back at you, and to experience a shock of recognition as the famous painter suddenly appears and comes alive. A series of portraits done throughout a lifetime can show a dramatic narrative and portrayal of personality. When Joshua Reynolds, for example, made prints of his thirty self-portraits, he displayed them on a table like the frames of a slow motion film. Though paintings are silent, their subjects speak to us.

The painter is narcissistic in the mythological as well as the Freudian sense. The self is an always available and endlessly interesting model. He uses a mirror to look at and paint himself (Parmigianino actually shows this) and the viewer confronts him directly, face to face. He has many dramatic, narrative and symbolic resources at his disposal: his facial features, expression, mood and gesture, gaze, hair style, clothing, pose, setting, background, inscription, accoutrements, action, and evocative allusions. In this imaginative conjunction of painterly skill and psychological insight, his reflection disappears and the portrait remains, a permanent image of a crucial stage in an artist’s life.

Except for one picture by Francisco Goya, the ten self-portraits discussed in this essay (a representative selection based on personal taste as well as on inherent worth) do not portray the artist with his family at home or with friends in his studio. They sacrifice dramatic interest by appearing alone, in the spotlight and isolated on the stage. These ‘advertisements for myself’ form three groups of three, which show the changing character of the artists’ self-perceptions and radical changes from the sixteenth to the twentieth-first century.

In the first cadre, the exalted and imperious Titian is enveloped in sumptuous apparel. Parmigianino is irresistibly attractive, though encased in a distorted setting. Goya, dressed like a fashionable señorito, is industriously at work at his easel. In his second picture Goya moves from proud to pathetic and marks a turning point in portraiture. In a thank-offering for his recovery from an illness, he portrays himself as vulnerable and frightened. The next group is dangerous and defiant. Vincent Van Gogh, like a secular saint, boldly displays his self-inflicted wound. Max Beckmann’s formal tuxedo is an aggressive armour-plated shield. Wyndham Lewis also confronts and challenges the anxious spectator.

In the twentieth century painters moved from the Renaissance idea of the divine creator to the portrayal of the artist as a tragic figure, displayed before and mocked by a hostile public, or as a deviant abnormal outcast, ‘born under Saturn’ and destined for madness and destruction. The last three portraits, in the modern mode of self-exposure, move from the dignified to the degraded – naked, confessional and vulnerable, yet stoical in the face of adversity. Lucian Freud and Alex Colville emphasize their physical frailty and waning powers when faced with death.

In the first Self-Portrait (1560, age 72, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) by Titian, the greatest painter of the Venetian Renaissance, his majestic and luminous figure fills the frame. The Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari—emphasizing the idea of sprezzatura, the appearance of effortless ease, observed that Titian’s method of reworking and recolouring ‘is judicious, beautiful and astonishing because it makes the paintings seem alive and created with great artistry, disguising the labour involved’. Set against a dark background, the artist wears a scholar’s black cap, subtly textured fur stole, purple jacket and white sleeve shimmering down his left arm. The light bounces off the triple coil of gold chains given to him by his most powerful and generous patron (subject of several of his finest portraits) the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Titian’s left hand rests on his knee; his foreshortened right hand, with fingers stiffly spread, is placed on the plain white tablecloth. His head is titled slightly backward, and he has a lofty brow, deep-set white-glinting brown eyes, a strong nose and lips barely visible beneath a thick grey beard that touches his collar. The septuagenarian sage looks offstage to the source of light on the left, as if he were about to rise from his seat and respond to an urgent summons. Titian’s lavish clothing defines the new social status of the artist who consorted with popes and kings.

Parmigianino’s Mannerist Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was painted in 1524 when he was only twenty-one years old. Vasari recorded that for this unusual circular picture the painter:

‘had a ball of wood made, and cutting it out to make it of the same size and shape as the mirror, he set to work to copy everything he saw there, including his own likeness, in the most natural manner imaginable. As things near the mirror appear large while they diminish as they recede, he made a hand with wonderful realism, somewhat large, as the mirror showed it. Being a handsome man, with the face of an angel rather than a man, his reflection in this ball appeared divine. He was most successful with the lustre of his glass, the reflections, shadows and lights, in fact human ingenuity could go no farther.’

Both realistic and distorted—like Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533)—Parmigianino achieved his trompe d’oeil effect by simulating the curve of a convex mirror on the surface of the small round panel. The young man stands near the mirror that rounds out the leaded window, bent to form a skylight, and the coloured panelled ceiling just above his head. He has reddish shoulder-length hair parted in the middle and curled beneath his ears, pale rose-tinted cheeks, widely spaced heavy-lidded grey eyes on slightly different planes, light glinting off his bold straight nose, pursed cupid-bow lips, firm chin, curly white-silk collar, outsize sleeve ruff and fur-trimmed coat. Decorated by a coral ring, his disproportionately large hand and elongated fingers—a sign of artistic proficiency—spread across the foreground in a mysterious gesture that both invites and excludes the viewer. In this chest-length, full-face portrait, the angelic artist, looking slightly to the left at his own reflection, has a wise-for-his-years expression and a soft, gentle, innocent, dreamy, androgynous, even girlish appearance. Delicate and elegant, the picture evokes surprise and astonishment. David Ekserdjian notes that ‘the gold-framed form to the painter’s extreme left…is the portrait the viewer is admiring set up on the artist’s easel.’

John Ashbery begins his long ambitious poem of 1972, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ with a precise description:

‘As Parmigianino did it, the right hand Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer And swerving easily away, as though to protect What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams, Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together In a movement supporting the face, which swims Toward and away like the hand Except that it is in repose.’

Ashbery calls it ‘the first mirror portrait,’ though it was actually preceded a century earlier by Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434).

Ashbery was attracted to the picture by what Arnold Hauser called Parmigianino’s ‘virtuoso, precious, playful artistry . . . the light and gentle flow of his line, his sensuous delicacy of draftsmanship and voluptuousness of form, his feminine sensibility and erotic subtlety.’ In his 1964 review of Parmigianino’s drawings, Ashbery praised ‘the almost supernatural refinement . . . the sense of the mystery behind physical appearances.’ The beauty of the narcissistic young man reflected the poet’s ideal self. Ashbery once told me he chose this painting because he ‘thought the subject was cute.’ The portrait, a celebration of himself, is a tribute to Parmigianino’s precocious talent, brilliant technique, physical beauty and personal charm.

Francisco Goya’s self-portraits provide a striking contrast between the ideal and the real. In Self-Portrait in the Studio (1785, age 39, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid) the youthful artist stands full-length in front of a writing table, painting a picture at his tall easel and looking to the left at the viewer. An ivory-colored window, painted with visible brushstrokes, floods the room with light but leaves his face in shadow. He wears tight trousers around his shapely legs, buckled shoes, ruffled white cuffs, and brown jacket trimmed with red embroidery and decorated with silver buttons. His high pot-hat with silver buckle on its band has metal pincers holding candles that allow him to paint at night. His alert features and confident hidalgo pose suggest a masterful artist at the height of his powers.

Thirty-five years later, when he was seventy-four, Goya painted a very different scene and image in Self-Portrait with Doctor Arietta (1820, Minneapolis Institute of Art). The inscription at the bottom of the picture thanks his physician and friend ‘for the care and attention with which he saved my life during an acute and dangerous illness.’ Overwhelmed by this mysterious sickness, which was related to his deafness, Goya lies in bed and seems about to sink into oblivion. Tilted backward, clothes in disarray, sweating, hair receding, eyes half-closed and mouth half-open, Goya gasps for a breath of air. He clutches the white sheet as if holding on to life, while the red blanket beneath it suggests an impending haemorrhage.

The faithful and solicitous Dr. Eugenio García Arietta revived Goya—rescued from death though pale and faint— and enabled him to paint this picture and to live for another eight years. Arietta’s left arm protectively supports and embraces the moribund patient, whose hair touches the doctor’s cheek, while his thick, wooden right hand raises to Goya’s lips a restorative cup of medicine. But the doctor’s twisted lips and troubled expression suggest doubt about whether his remedy will be effective. Goya’s suffering recalls Christ’s anguished cry in Matthew 26:39, ‘let this cup pass from me’, while the doctor holds his stiff body in a pietà. In the background, three shadowy, cadaverous, nightmarish friends and servants wait to bury and mourn for him. After a lifetime of looking hard at horrific reality, Goya created a desperately poignant portrait of himself. This intensely dramatic scene portrays him as a wounded hero, hovering as in an opera between life and death.

Vincent Van Gogh was the first of these artists to paint without a patron or commissions and to lack recognition in his lifetime. The story behind Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889, age 36, Stavros Niarchos Collection, Kunsthaus, Zurich) is violent and notorious. In December 1888 Van Gogh suddenly rushed at Paul Gauguin with an open razor in his hand, then stopped short and ran toward the house they shared in Arles. He returned to his room in a state of excitement and high fever, suffered auditory hallucinations, ‘went astray in his wits’ and severed the lower part of his left ear. After staunching the flow of blood, he covered the wound with a large beret and rinsed the excised flesh. He then took it to his habitual brothel, gave it to a prostitute and told her to ‘keep this object carefully’. She unwrapped the ghoulish gift and fainted.

Van Gogh portrayed himself in three-quarter view, with the warm gold and brick red of the background clearly divided by a line that runs emphatically across the painting at the level of his red-rimmed ferret eyes. The demented artist has a sharply outlined fur cap pulled down on his forehead, rough sallow-skinned face with high-bridged nose and green buttoned greatcoat. He bites a pipe that puffs out curls of smoke, boldly confronts the viewer and wears an expression of defiant despair.

In his novel The Revenge for Love (1937), the artist and author Wyndham Lewis provides a brilliantly detailed description of Van Gogh’s portrait:

‘He was disguised in the fur cap of a Canadian trapper. A heavy white bandage, descending under the chin, covered his right ear. The pupils of the eyes were painted as a nest of concentric wedges of greens, reds, blues and yellows, with their apex inwards. The bald look of the pale eyebrows marked the base of the bony swellings. Then more wedges stuck on end, a miniature hedge of them, for the tissue of the lips. An old pilot jacket produced the weighty yoke.’

Although Van Gogh had suffered self-mutilation and psychic shock, his intense, tragic yet therapeutic painting is surprisingly concentrated, calm and composed.

Like Van Gogh, both Lewis and Beckmann endured exile and suffered poverty in their lifetimes. Both modern artists came back from the Great War to face civilian conflicts. Lewis, a Swiftian satirist, defined the Tyro, his persona in print and art, as ‘a new type of human animal, raw and undeveloped, his vitality is immense but purposeless, and hence sometimes malignant.’ In Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1921) the fierce and frightening artist, a self-declared enemy of society, projects his self-created image rather than his real self. (A photo of the handsome, thirty-year-old Lewis looks remarkably like the dashing self-portrait of the young Delacroix.) Lewis’s violent image is grotesque and forbidding. He sports a high military collar and black suit that juts out of his chest. His heavily shadowed face has a mountain-peak left eyebrow, jewel-cut eyes, blade-like nose, grimacing red lips, sharp jutting chin and stiff-column neck. His cantilevered hat, row of gravestone teeth and jagged outline of his body stand out strongly against the bilious mustard background. Though his features are extremely stylized, they forcefully convey his abrasive personality. Menacing and ready for combat, he defies the society that refuses to recognize his achievement. In Lewis’ hands, the self-portrait becomes a political statement.

Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) was painted during the economic and political instability of Weimar Germany. The monumental and elegant Beckmann, who liked formal attire, stands in front of a folded red curtain and grey background. He wears a black tuxedo and tie, offset by a stiff white shirt front and white cuffs. His right arm is bent onto his waist, his left hand, with protruding veins and bent fingers, holds a dangling cigarette while his thumbs extend toward each other. His eyes are obscured in a shadow that runs from his wide brow to his protruding jaw. With massive flat-topped head and frightening flat-faced countenance, he looks like a cross between Winston Churchill and a bulldog. Ready for more than a night out on the town, he stares directly at the spectator in a brutal and aggressively self-assured pose, part revelation, part disguise. Beckmann’s forceful, jagged outlines convey chilling cynicism and ironic detachment, exude status and confidence, and project ferocious energy and psychic power. In her novel Henry and Cato (1976), Iris Murdoch describes Beckmann’s place in the tradition of ‘metaphysical objectivity’. Murdoch’s Henry admires the painter’s vast self-confidence and commanding egoism, and is writing a book on the tormented images of the ‘two-wived Beckmann, treading underground paths of masculine mysticism which linked Signorelli to Grünewald, Rembrandt to Cézanne.’

The last three self-portraits reveal the artists stripped naked: Egon Schiele’s self-loathing and despair, Lucian Freud’s pride and aggression and Alex Colville’s confrontation with mortality. In two scandalous court cases the young Austrian Schiele was acquitted of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old girl, but convicted of showing his naked drawings to children. In a witty poem, Robert Graves clarifies the difference between Schiele’s nakedness and the idealized nude: ‘The naked, therefore, who compete / Against the nude may know defeat.’

In the thickly painted Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating (1911), Schiele stands before a plain beige background and portrays a sexual act never before publicly exposed in high art. He has a tilted bulbous triangular head, protruding red ears, large sad eyes, thin nose and twisted lips. His open black cloak hangs heavily on his narrow fragile shoulders, exposes his naked body and falls below the open crotch of his thin spread legs. His two spindly hands join at the genitals, revealing the crest of his pubic hair and touching the oval bottom of his scrotum. His penis is concealed rather than erect. His contorted expression suggests he has not yet reached orgasm and is not getting much pleasure from his provocative behavior. Deviant and defiant, nervous and intense, he portrayed the repressed sexuality in Freud’s Vienna and reversed Freud’s dictum to mean: where ego was, there id shall be.

Schiele, following the precise linear tradition of Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer, transcends his subject matter with superb draftsmanship. The adolescent appearance and compulsive act by the Kafka of Expressionism evoke not shock and shame, but compassion and tristesse. He expressed his agony in a desperate letter of January 1911: ‘Will things go any further? I can’t. I haven’t been able to work for days. . . . Who will help me? I can’t buy a single canvas; I want to paint but have no colours. I am sick.’ Schiele died in the epidemic of Spanish influenza, at the age of twenty-eight, before he could fulfill his promise.

In his blurry portrait, Painter, Working, Reflection (1993) Lucian Freud looks like he had been roughly moulded by an unseen hand from clay into man. His uncombed hair has a white streak, his forehead is corrugated, his nose long and expression desperate. His old man’s emaciated body shows his neck tendons, skeletal structure and sagging veined flesh. His genitals are sketchy, his knees knobbly, his heavy open unlaced soldier’s boots show his bare feet and seem more fit to trek through mud than pace the artist’s floor. He stands naked and alone in his messy studio, holding—like a shield and sword—a palette knife in his actively raised right hand and a smeared dark palette in his weakly lowered left hand. This brave display of decrepitude shows an impressive determination to continue his work. Once handsome and now ruined, Freud provocatively declared, ‘the task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent.’ He also explained how he created this self-portrait: ‘Now the very least I can do is paint myself naked. You’ve got to try and paint yourself as another person. With self-portraits ‘likeness’ becomes a different thing. I have to do what I feel like without being an expressionist.’

Studio (2000) by the Canadian realist Alex Colville is a vertical version of Hans Holbein’s stark Christ in the Tomb (1521) and a variant of the tormented nudes: Dürer’s Self-Portrait for Consultation with a Doctor (1507), where the artist points to pain in his abdomen, and Stanley Spencer’s Double Nude Portrait (1937). It is an astonishingly brave self-exposure of the aged artist, who had precariously survived several gruelling operations for cancer and for open-heart surgery to replace a defective valve. In this depiction of human frailty and the approach of death, Colville faces the spectator with a naked, full-frontal glare, balding dome, thin arms, crooked legs, and bony torso cut and scarred from throat to pubis. His hands are crossed (like Schiele’s) in front of his genitals, with the bottom of the scrotum showing just below the fingertips. His glasses and glinting watch emphasize his nakedness, the inexorable passing of time and his own vulnerability, and evoke pity for his illness and lament for his pain. But this great painting also has a positive aspect. The green leaves fluttering above the skylight symbolize the renewal of life. The materials in the artist’s studio that protrude from the edges of the frame suggest that his work continues in adversity and will survive: il faut durer. His stoic theme is fortitude in the face of disaster and a firm commitment to his art.

These modern self-portraits display what Laura Cumming calls ‘their wounds as marks of heroism and sanctity in images designed to have the power to harrow, inspire and arouse compassion.’ They all illustrate a great range of aesthetic possibilities: portrayed with or without brushes and palette, smooth or rough brushstrokes, full-face or three-quarter view, establishing or avoiding eye contact, decorated or unadorned, elaborately dressed or naked, exalted or tormented, heroic or wounded. They reveal a radical transformation throughout the centuries from the dignified and impressive Titian, Parmigianino and first Goya to the dying Goya, wounded Van Gogh, lonely and onanistic Schiele, furious Lewis and Beckmann, stripped and saddened Beckett-like Freud and Colville, who abandon all finery and wear nothing more than old boots and a wristwatch.

This brief pageant of self-portraits justifies the claim of the fifteenth-century architect Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote that they bestowed eternal life and fame by preserving the image, memory and virtues of the subjects: ‘Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, but makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter.’

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published Painting and the Novel, The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis, Impressionist Quartet, Modigliani: A Life and The Mystery of the Real, correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

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