Research Point: Investigating Artist’s Self Portraits

Egon Schiele Self Portrait with Physalis 1912

Ok, for this research point I started by typing in artist’s self portraits on Google and put the artist’s into 2 groups.

Artists I’ve heard of:

  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Frida kahlo
  • Max Beckmann
  • Egon Schiele
  • Gustav Courbet
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Rembrandt


Artists I haven’t head of:

  • Felix Nussbaum
  • Georges Dheedene
  • William Utermohlen
  • James Montgomery Flagg

The two groups included 4 very familiar paintings.

My tutor suggested that I looked at two books by John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’ and ‘Another Way of Telling’. I’ve almost finished with ‘Ways of Seeing and it’s opened my eyes quite a bit, so what I would like to do in this research point is to look at each painting and say what I see giving my own opinion of what’s going on in each painting without looking at the artist’s background.

Vincent van Gogh - Self Portrait
Vincent van Gogh – Self Portrait

It’s hard not to know anything about Vincent van Gogh so what I see in this painting is going to be tainted by my knowledge of the artist. The reason why I chose to look at the painting above is because of the colours and swirls that are obvious in his suit and background. It would be easy to say that he chose that coloured suit as a contrast to his red beard and that colour background just ‘happened’. What I see is a troubled man ‘having a go’ at creating something calm, hence the choice of colours for suit and background but then his emotions have got the better of him has he worked the oil into a frenzy, his serious expression on his face tells me that he’s getting lost in his own thoughts.

What I do notice in this painting by van Gogh is that it probably started from the eyes and then he built each part of the face and head up as he got to it rather than starting by drawing an outline of the overall shape of his head. The thickness of the paint brings his face and beard out from the background making it look almost 3D.

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait with a Monkey 1938
Frida Kahlo Self Portrait with a Monkey 1938

If I didn’t know anything about Frida Kahlo and saw this self portrait I’d have thought she had a pet monkey, but then has you start to look at more of her paintings you notice that the monkeys appear in more than one of her paintings and the rest are full of pain and suffering and so the monkey refers to her burden, her handicap the ‘monkey on her back’.

So apart from the pet monkey what else do I see in this painting, if it was me painting this I would have tried to minimize the uni-brow, still keeping it but making it less prominent. She hasn’t, along with the length of her neck she has emphasized it to show a sense of seriousness or to let the viewer know that she is fighting.

Max Beckmann Self Portrait
Max Beckmann Self Portrait

I know nothing of Max Beckmann just his name, and what I would say about this artist is, German, related to the pre-World War 2 expressionist movement. The bottle of champagne and the way he’s holding his cigar tells me that he’s gay and in the upper-class but then again from what I have seen of period movies the upper-class often acted camp to show they were having fun. Then again, is he having a poke at the upper-classes?

It seems like all his effort went into his face which is staring at someone or something or even listening intently to the person who he is enjoying the bottle of champagne with.

Egon Schiele Self Portrait with Physalis 1912
Egon Schiele Self Portrait with Physalis 1912

If I didn’t know who Egon Shiele was or read the book ‘Schiele’ by Reinhard Steiner this painting didn’t have a date on it I would have said late 1970s – mid 1980s as it makes me think about the post punk musical movements of that time. Rebellious, experimental, maybe the expressionist movement and New Wave music were driven by the same things, boredom and the need to break off and experiment. The look in Schiele’s face tells me ‘this is me, this is who I am, take it or leave it’.

Gustave Courbet The Desperate Man
Gustave Courbet The Desperate Man

I already did a research point including Gustave Courbet which brought me to this painting, as the model he is acting out a role, as the artist he is trying to capture as much emotion as he can into one pose and one facial expression, the ‘pulling your hair out look’.

Pablo Picasso Self Portrait 1906
Pablo Picasso Self Portrait 1906

The first word that came into my head here was ‘Negro’ and so I went to Google and typed in those words exactly ‘Pablo Picasso Negro’ and the first thing that came up was a Wiki link saying ‘Picasso’s African Period which lasted from 1906 (the date of this self portrait) to 1909. Picasso’s African Period was a period where he painted in the style of African sculptor…I learn something new every day.

Pablo Picasso Portrait 1900
Pablo Picasso Portrait 1900

In the portrait above Picasso looks like Crispin Glover in the movie Willard, an outcast. In the 1900s they were still wearing their hair brushed back and so he may have been showing his rebellious personality wearing his hair in this manner.

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1600s
Rembrandt Self Portrait 1600s

I am going to have to be honest here and say I know nothing about Rembrandt apart from he was Dutch. Looking at the painting above and quite a few other of his self portraits, Rembrandt is pulling faces and from what I know through researching self portraits in this research point, he painted more self portraits that any other artist and so this is just another study of his face. If I didn’t know that I would say that he was either showing everyone how good his life was or how good he could paint!

And now for the artists I haven’t heard of..

Self Portrait in the Camp 1944 Felix Nussbaum
Self Portrait in the Camp 1944 Felix Nussbaum

I think this portrait of German-Jewish Artist Felix Nussbaum speaks for itself, he’s not just painting himself but he’s painting the death that surrounds him. This is Auschwitz death camp where he was murdered a few months later. I don’t know how he got to paint this but I’m kind of glad he did, it’s a constant reminder of how evil men can be and how strong people can be in the face of death.

Last Self Portrait by Artist Georges Dheedene
Last Self Portrait by Artist Georges Dheedene

The painting above is the last self portait by Belgian artist Georges Dheedene 1909-1973 (the latter being the year I was born. I look at it and the first thing that comes into my head is that it’s a portrait of a handsome old man with decent dress sense in the pipe and slippers years of his life.

William Utermohlen Self-Portrait (Green)
William Utermohlen Self-Portrait (Green)

In the book ‘Ways of seeing’ by John Berger, there is a painting by Vincent van Gogh, and we are asked to think what we see when we look at it only to turn the page and get told that it is the last painting he painted before he killed himself.

As I was browsing the net for artist’s self portraits I came across the one above and van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows automatically came to mind, telling me that there was something going on in this painting, something not quite right with the artist, so I researched William Utermohlen only to find out that this was one of the last painting he produced before dying of Alzheimer’s.

This was his last…

William Utermohlen Last Self-Portrait
William Utermohlen Last Self-Portrait 2000

He died in 2007 but his wife said he actually died in 2000 when he realized he couldn’t draw anymore.

James Montgomery Flagg - Self Portrait as Uncle Sam
I Want You 1917 – James Montgomery Flagg – Self Portrait as Uncle Sam

I never realised this was a self -portrait but it is and was painted by James Mongomery Flagg in 1917. The fact that he has used himself as the model or himself as Uncle Sam tells me that he was a proud American ‘doing his part’, and earning  a decent buck for doing so.

Again this is another artist who has put himself in a role for the painting and has done so by making up for the self portrait with hat wig and beard rather than just using his imagination to age himself in the painting.

James Montgomery Flagg - Self Portrait 1956
James Montgomery Flagg – Self Portrait 1956

In both of the paintings above he has left the subject (himself) incomplete which is obvious in the first as he uses a white background so as to allow for US propaganda but in the second it is not so obvious as he merges the colour of his suit into the colour of the background, this makes him look almost ghostly or immortal… James Montgomery Flagg was an artist and at his peak was one of the highest paid illustrators in the USA, the painting above seems to be a self portrait documenting a lifetime of achievements for future generations.


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