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My Top Picks: Self-Portraits

I remember when I was younger I had photocopied self-portraits of all my favourite artists tacked to the wall in my basement studio...stern black and white faces looking at made me feel safe, like I was surrounded by the All-Stars of Art, encouraging me silently to get over making mistakes and get past them. It was great support for a self-taught artist! And I needed all the support I could get back then.
When we think of self-portraits by famous artists, the usual suspects come to mind...Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Kahlo, or maybe Velazquez or Da Vinci, and it is interesting to note that the Renaissance was where the self-portrait really became popular. With the idea of the artist as more than just a faceless member of a guild (as was the case in the Middle Ages) artists began to study nature and, with better quality mirrors, themselves. This was not a conceit. The publicity machine back then was not quite as state-of-the-art as today, and I'm sure most people could not attach a name to a face until an engraving was made of them, probably long after they died. But the essence of the self-portrait is much deeper than that--it is an awareness of one's own mortality, one's flaws, and strengths, one's identity...and it is damn good practice. Here are some less common self-portraits throughout history:

Federico Barocci, c.1570-1575
This is one of a small series of self-portraits Barocci painted, which reflect his somber and fragile physical and emotional fabric. For someone who painted a lot and enjoyed a success in his day few could boast, we see a very different person here, someone who has too much on his mind. I had the pleasure of seeing these in the Uffizi, and they are incredibly moving up close.

Simon Vouet, c. 1626-1627
Simon is known for being one of the first French artists to introduce Italian Baroque to France, and here we see his confidence and the sum of his knowledge that he absorbed in Rome. Most notable here is the natural expression on his face, lips slightly parted, as if just finishing a sentence— a technique he would have noticed from the sculpture of Bernini. The carefree wisps of hair are fun, and despite having near bloodshot eyes from painting a long stretch, he seems full of life and zest, capturing the true spirit of the Baroque.

François Boucher, c. 1730-1735

Boucher, the man nearly synonymous with the Rococo of the 1700's, is pictured here as a young man (he looks a little young here to be in his 30's) painting in his studio by the window. What I love about these type of paintings is the snapshot of the era: the clothing, a large homemade easel, jars of medium or turpentine stuffed with cloth, small palette of colours and brushes in hands, and in this case, the busted bust on the floor. It is difficult to imagine that in this world, no electricity existed...painters painted by candlelit lamps until the early morning hours, no tv, no radio, just the natural noises outside the window..

José Jiménez Aranda
I love this self-portrait. Aranda was a 19th century Spanish painter who is more well-known in his native Seville than anywhere else, sadly. A portrait of this caliber shows us the keen self-awareness Aranda had at his age, looking at us like an unexpected visitor in his studio. His style reminds me of Messionier but warmer, looser, more inviting, and this self-portrait shows a very clever man at home in the country that he served all his life.

Ernest Meissonier, 1889
Hey, speak of the devil...the man with a beard that our modern eyes equate more with ZZ Top than a French genius. Within his very limited scale of military themes and soldiers, Messionier had a great gift for the full-length portrait that was under-utilized in his time, regrettably, but his ability to capture the body language and facial expressions of people are difficult to equal. Here he seems tired and frustrated, as if unwilling to paint himself, something that is uniquely astute and self-critical yet also intriguing. Photos of Messionier are abundant but here he seems far more interesting and real than any B&W photo could ever reveal.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1635
Bernini was in his mid-30's when he drew this casual self-portrait. Already established as a master sculptor, the man who played with marble as if it were butter, Bernini catapulted himself into the top of the Baroque limelight with a midas touch. Interestingly, all his self-portraits seem to reveal a different person, and for that I'm not exactly sure why. His success must have had a profound impact on his life, personally...literally having too many commissions for one human being to handle in a single lifetime, plus teaching on top of that for a period of time. What I like about this drawing is the calm confidence he exudes at this moment in his life, already famous but not quite aware of the impact he would have on Rome and St. Peter's Basilica in the following years to come. Bernini's portrait appeared on the 50,000 Italian lira for many years before being replaced by the Euro.

Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1633
One of my very favourite sketches, Rubens quickly drew this probably late at night, maybe unable to sleep. The reason I say night is because one day while looking at this sketch, I took my photocopied version and held it up to a candle, turned off the lights, and miraculously the sketch seem to come alive under that warm flicker...the lines seemed suddenly sharper, yet still gestural and graceful. Why has no one made a film of this man? This is a genius who spoke some seven languages, a scholar, diplomat, art history buff, and highly wealthy artist who commanded a workshop of up to a hundred artists. He painted multiple figures often life size or larger, brilliant compositions and fiery colours...but his finest assistant become one of the most famous portrait artists of all time, the great Anthony Van Dyck who's birthday is coming up tomorrow.


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