Self-Portraits

March 28, 2011 § 5 Comments

Few subjects in art rival the human face and figure for psychological impact and technical difficulty. Our first clear vision in this world is that of our own mother’s face. Thereafter, the human face holds encoded meanings that become a life’s study.

In painting our own, or others’ likeness the fundamental challenge is learning to see and simplify the major and minor color shapes that the head presents to our eyes, instead of just the details of eyelashes, nostrils and lips. We may wish, in painting the head, to reveal the inner being of our sitter, but that will never happen without careful attention to the outer form. The inner and the outer are inseparable. Charles Hawthorne, the celebrated teacher of Edwin Dickinson and Hans Hoffman, relates a story about painting the portrait of a bald man, becoming fascinated by the colors he observed in the man’s head, one color spot against another, and finding later that he had accurately captured the sitter’s likeness with hardly a conscious thought as to how he was doing that. Seeing is a kind of knowledge.

Following is a gallery of artists’ self-portraits in a loosely chronological order from Rembrandt’s early self-portraits to the work of some notable contemporary painters. Every generation of artists, it seems, is similarly compelled to make its own statement of identity.

In his 63 years on earth, Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn (1606-1669) painted 88 self-portraits. He first painted himself in his twenties. They are masterful, proud, and just a bit cocky –  the new kid on the block hanging out his shingle as a portrait painter. Caravaggio had already come and gone, alerting Rembrandt’s generation to the splendors and mysteries of raking light.

Rembrandt continued to use himself as a model throughout his life documenting his aging face through prosperous times and through the financial setback that beset him late in life. The body of self-portraits that he left us are a great legacy to the world. They have much to teach the aspiring painter about how light and shadow activate an image, how it sculpts the planes of the head and sets up a dialogue between form and space. Rembrandt’s self-portraits also teach us that content or meaning is not something that the painter needs to consciously program or add on. The inner state of the sitter and the outer forms are intimately involved in each other. Only the honest, attentive gaze will reveal it.

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