One of the things that distinguishes us as humans is the need to leave our mark behind, to say "I was here, I mattered." We see evidence of this as far back as 10,000 years ago when our ancestors first stamped and stenciled their handprints on cave walls. More formal self-portraits start appearing as early as 2300 BC in ancient Egypt, carved on the tombs of the Pharaohs. But self-portraiture didn't become fully established as an art genre until the Early Renaissance with the advent of the manufacture of affordable flat mirrors. Luckily for us, artists have been gazing at themselves in mirrors ever since.
Phaidon Press's 500 Self-Portraits is a visual orgy, a must-have art book for anyone who is interested in the history of portraiture. This is a book you will pick up over and over again for the sheer joy of browsing. From classical to modern, naïve to sophisticated, mannered to irreverent, haunting to humorous -- it's all here in this one affordable volume.
The reproductions in 500 Self-Portraits are presented in chronological order from Ancient Egypt to the present day. A new version of a classic first published in 1937, the only text is a brief introduction by painter and writer Julian Bell (grandson of Vanessa Bell), in which he states:
Self-portraiture is a singular, in-turned art. Something eerie lurks in its fingering of the edge between seer and seen. Looking over the faces collected in this book, we may be disconcerted by the cumulative intensity of so many wary, wondering, self-surprised eyes. Yet what unites the individuals gathered to stare is that they are all artists. People, that is, prepared to set down their self-examination in markings that may be examined by others.Included are five self portraits by Durer, one of which he did when he was only 13 years old, as well as a beautiful ink drawing of him completely in the nude, leaving little to the imagination. There are ten by Rembrandt, a prolific self-portraitist, showing him chronologically throughout his life, and two by a very pretty young Elizabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun from the late eighteenth century. Self-Portrait, Turning by Nadar, is an early albumen print foreshadowing the later work of Eadweard Muybridge. It shows the artist in twelve separate panels as he turns toward and then away from the camera. There are two self-portraits by Chardin in his quirky head-gear and spectacles; and one done in 1906 by German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on my Sixth Wedding Anniversary, where she depicts herself partially naked and pregnant.
If you prefer your art history with more explanatory text, then another affordable volume from the Taschen Basic Genre Series, Self-Portraits by Ernst Rebel, may be perfect for you. It looks at 35 self-portraits in depth, ranging from the mid-12th century to the present. Each of the 35 paintings is accompanied by a brief bio of the artist and an insightful interpretation of the work depicted. In his essay, "Artists in the Focus of Their Own Eyes" Rebel provides an historical framework for the paintings and reflects on the changing role of the artist in society. He states:
Self-portraits are testimonials in which the artist's ego as his own model and motif at the same time relates to other people. Artists depict themselves as they want to be seen by others, but also as they want to distinguish themselves from them.
Self-portraits included are Moses and the Burning Bush, an early glass painting by Master Gerlauchus who depicts himself painting an inscription asking for God's mercy; James Ensor's Self-Portrait Among Masks; Velasquez's famous La Meninas; as well as ones by Max Beckmann, Diego Rivera, Lucien Freud and many others.
Cross-posted from Jane Chafin's Offramp Gallery Blog