Self-Portraits: The Art Of Preserving Self-Identity Essay Examples
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In the yesteryears, self-portraits were considered the artists’ way of expressing themselves whilst demonstrating their skills in manipulating colours in order to create stunning masterpieces. Due to the invention of the camera, more people are able to capture their ‘moments’ within a flick of a finger through their smartphones, tablets, and digital cameras. In his dissertation, Professor Azar Rejaie noted that one purpose of self-portraiture was for the sake of remembrance, and to honour an artist’s contribution to the society1. This type of painting differs from the regular painting. Painting one’s self requires more attention to the image produced by the mirror. In this scenario, painting self-portraits can be quite challenging and sometimes biased. According to the introduction written by James Hall in his book, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History; Giorgio Vasari quoted Michelangelo’s words that artists will undoubtedly strive hard to paint a good portrait of them2. Unlike the traditional portraiture, self-portraits allow the artist to explore the newest painting techniques of blending subtle colour hues, and incorporate new designs without even offending anyone. The British author and historian James Hall even claimed that self-portraits are the viewers’ portal to examine closely an artist’s personal life3. In addition, Hall also asserted that self-portraits provide the modern viewers the key to better understand the soul of the painter, “thereby overcome the alienation and anonymity experienced by so many in modern urbanized societies.”4
At some point, painting oneself in their own canvas can be viewed as narcissistic; however, art curator Linsey Gosper countered this stereotypical belief. She argued that, creating such figures can be unnerving. “Artists use whatever tools are available to them”5. In the case of Vincent van Gogh, his unpopular artworks made him extremely poor as he cannot buy anything nor he cannot afford to pay a model to become his subject. As a result, he lived the rest of his adult life in poverty and lunacy. The majority of his artworks consist of thirty self-portraits painted between 1886 and 18896. Scholars such as Mann and Syson argue the ubiquitous connection between self-portraits and the myth of Narcissus is due to the fact that self-portraiture is the “cult of personality” said to have flourished in the fifteenth century7. Furthermore, Leon Battista Alberti even linked Narcissus’ “mirror-moment” to the self-portrait genre. He stated that:
“I say among my friends that Narcissus, who was changed into a flower according to the poets, was the inventor of the painting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call a painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain.”8
In painting self-portraits, mirrors are often used by the artists to view their reflection, thus, enabling them to sketch as well as scrutinize their physical attributes for the first time. The mirror which predates its history to those “bronze, copper, gold, and silver mirrors of Egypt, Persia and Northern Italy” was carefully studied and improved in the 16th century by the Venetians9, leading to the invention of the glass mirror which offered more clarity in viewing one’s reflection10. The wide use of mirrors during the Renaissance period prompted many patrons and artists alike to ‘preserve’ their looks through paintings. One of the famous Renaissance artists Jan van Eyck, painted his well-renowned self-portrait, entitled The Man in a Red Turban.
Jan van Eyck’s painting of a man wearing a red turban once thought to be a portrait of one of his clients. However, scholars and artists disputed the statement because it does not seem to fit the painting at all. Viewers may find the painting too realistic, since the subject is gazing intently at the audience. The serene facial expression as well as the intent eyes seem to return the audience’s gaze as well; as if one was looking directly at a real person not a portrait. This stunning feature even impressed art scholars such as Fred Kleiner when he stated that the painter used his exceptional skill in manipulating the colors of the painting whilst adding a touch of realistic features such which highlighted the “sense of specificity.” Such evidence can be seen on the accurate portrayal of chin stubbles, wrinkled skin and “veins in the bloodshot left eye.”11
The surviving self-portraits enabled scholars, artists and even ordinary people to catch a glimpse of intimacy about the personality of the artist who created them. In the latter part of the 18th century, Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch artist of the Post-Impressionist period. During his lifetime, he painted numerous self-portraits since he cannot afford to pay for models due to his lack of money. Ad hoc, his surviving self-portraits gained him a posthumous admiration towards the artistic community because of his unique and subtle blending of colours which was quite different from the works of Monet and Gauguin. Another reason for van Gogh’s popularity in the twentieth century is because his self-portraits tell the modern audience the story of his life. The majority of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings used a great deal of somber earth tones such as greys13 which somehow corresponds to his sad life as unpopular artist of his time.
Vincent van Gogh used the ‘looking glass’ to sketch his appearance on the canvas. In the picture above, van Gogh gives his audience a small tidbit of information about himself. The artist’s face is gaunt due to malnutrition. His beard was thick, red and heavily unkempt. His hair was clipped short. The wrinkled face shows the hardships he had endured whilst living in Paris, primarily due to poverty. Despite his brother’s continuous support both on his painting and financial needs, van Gogh used the money to purchase art supplies. Unlike his previous self-portraits, this artwork uses a much lighter shades of “red, yellow, purple, orange, blue, and green.”15 For instance, he used mixed red and orange in order to enhance the rich tints of his beard against the blue overcoat. As a whole, the painting summarizes van Gogh’s somber personality, depicted by the tight-lipped and erect posture whilst conveying the message to the audience that he is a “modern artist”16 with a unique style and attitude towards painting. The result of the painting eventually pleased van Gogh for he signed his name vividly on the lower right panel of the work. Moving forward, it is universally known that pictures are worth a thousand words. Thus, in order to be remembered, an artist must therefore preserve his identity through self-portraits. Self-portraits works as a visual autobiography of an artist; through the use of mirror, a painter can subject themselves to their own aesthetic judgment. They can alter their looks to make themselves beautiful and they can also preserve their flaws to make their images more realistic to view. Writer Frances Spalding even agreed to Hall’s argument that self-portraits is the closest thing to an artist’s soul since every line, facial expression and colour variations can present the artist’s self as either happy or melancholy. “Whatever stance they promote, be it pompous or playful or merely pleasing, self-portraits have much to say. They can show success or indulge in self-mockery; advertise a new aesthetic or celebrate a marriage.”17 Of course, all people would like to be remembered; this is the reason the majority of social media users upload countless of self-portraits, known as ‘selfies’ because they wanted to capture the moment of their lives. Crozier and Greenhalgh also linked the mania of creating self-portraits to two psychological theories: Self-Awareness and Self-Presentation theories. They explained that people become more self-oriented whenever they are in the presence of cameras, mirror and audiences or anything that increases their self-confidence18. On the other hand, Self-Presentation Theory explains that self-presentation is essential in forming social acquaintanceships, wherein either a person’s behaviour or physical attributes works to influence the opinion of other people about that person19. As a conclusion, self-portraits exist to preserve a person’s memory. It is also a visual extension of an artist soul since the images reflect their facial expressions that tell the audience about their feelings and their actual physical appearance.
1. Azar M. Rejaie, Defining Artistic Identity in the Florentine Renaissance: Vasari, Embedded Self-Portraits, and the Patron’s Role, diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2006, 1.
2. James Hall, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), location 62, Amazon Kindle Book.
3. Hall, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, “Introduction,” location 68.
4. Ibid., location 68.
5. Linsey Gosper, Mirror Mirror: Contemporary Photographic Self-Portraiture, PDF File, Web, n.d., http://www.linseygosper.com/files/mirror%20mirror%20A5%20for%20web.pdf
6. “Self-Portraits,” Van Gogh Gallery. Accessed February 27, 2015, http://www.vangoghgallery.com/misc/selfportrait.html
7. Faye Tudor, “Mirrors and Vision in the Renaissance.” Renaissance Theories of Vision, eds. John Shannon Hendrix and Charles H. Carman (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012), 172.
8. Ibid., 172.
9. Ibid., 172.
10. Ibid., 173.
11. Fred Kleiner. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History vol. 2 (Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013), Google book. unpaginated.
12. Jan van Eyck. The Man in a Red Turban, c. 1433, oil on wood, 1’1 ⅛” x 10 ¼” accessed 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-portrait-of-a-man-self-portrait
13. Charles Stewart Roberts. “The Conscience of Vincent van Gogh,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 23, no. 1 (2010): 31-32, doi: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804494/
14. Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait as a Painter, c. 1887-1888, oil on canvas, 65.1 cm x 50 cm accessed 27 Feb. 2015. http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0022V1962
15. Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait as a Painter, c. 1887-1888, oil on canvas.
17. Frances Spalding. “The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History-Review,” The Guardian, last modified 27 Mar. 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/27/self-portrait-culture-history-james-hall-review-profoundly-human
18. W. Ray Crozier and Paul Greenhalgh, “Self Portraits as Presentation of Self,” Leonardo 21, no. 1 (1988): 29-33, doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1578412
19. Ibid., 29.
Crozier, W. Ray and Paul Greenhalgh. “Self Portraits as Presentation of Self,” Leonardo 21.1 (1988): 29-33, Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
Eyck, Jan van. The Man in a Red Turban. c. 1433, oil on wood, 1’1 ⅛” x 10 ¼”. National Gallery, London.
Gogh, Vincent van. Self-Portrait as a Painter. c. 1887-1888, oil on canvas, 65.1 cm x 50 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Netherlands.
Gosper, Linsey. “Mirror Mirror: Contemporary Photographic Self-Portraiture.” Colour Factory Gallery, 2013. Web. PDF File.
Hall, James. The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014. Kindle AZW File.
Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History vol. 2. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013, unpaginated. Web, Google Books.
Rejaie, Azar M. Defining Artistic Identity in the Florentine Renaissance: Vasari, Embedded Self-Portraits, and the Patron’s Role. Diss. University of Pittsburgh, 2006. Web.
Roberts, Charles Stewart. “The Conscience of Vincent van Gogh,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 23.1 (2010): 31-32, Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
Spalding, Frances. “The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History-Review,” The Guardian., last modified 27 Mar. 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
Tudor, Faye. “Mirrors and Vision in the Renaissance.” Renaissance Theory of Vision, Eds. John Shannon Hendrix and Charles H. Carman. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2012. 171-187. Web. Google Books.
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