The Birth of Self-Portraiture and How the Genre Has Changed in Contemporary Work

Self-portraiture is a genre that spans the history of art, even preceding the title of ‘artist’ that we use today. Artists’ portrayals of themselves are an endlessly interesting form of portraiture because of the way it gives insight to the artist themselves rather than the sitters they would typically use for portrait work. While having a physical representation of the artist itself, the works can function as the artist examining themselves, as signatures, as demonstrating their skill or as experiments with their art. The experience of a viewer looking at a self-portrait gives them an intimate glimpse into an artist’s personality that can feel quite invasive, giving the viewer a voyeuristic power and making self-portraits captivating.

The word ‘artist’ itself is a title that has only existed since the 15th century, in time before then artists were regarded as only small craftsmen and their practice was limited to working on commission for the wealthy. To create work autonomously or to paint a self-portrait was unheard of since in the 14th century for one to sign their work was seen as striving to be famous and for the sake of the artist’s vanity. Ancient author Cicero described sculptor and architect Phidias’ placement of “a likeness similar to his own” on the shield of Minerva as a claim to having created the piece “since he was not allowed to inscribe his name”[1]. In Antiquity if an artist wanted to make their mark they had to be creative and subtle to avoid disapproval.

Though work was regarded as the product of craftsmanship there was an appreciation of the work as transcendent. It was believed that since humans were created in God’s image they carried the power of divine creativity in them and that God’s omnipotence and creation could only be imagined through the image that artists created. The world was considered to be God’s work of art and therefore all products of creativity including buildings, images and jewellery were merely the products of God’s work and bear the mark of God, the deus artifex, the world’s supreme artist.

Peter Parler (1330-1399) was an architect and sculptor, one of the most prominent craftsmen of the Middle Ages. When he was the imperial and episcopal cathedral architect, Parler installed a life-sized bust of himself in St Vitus Cathedral, Prague in approximately 1375. He was the first artist to portray his own image as well as leaving a signature, coat of arms and inscription. He installed his self-portrait around other busts in the triforium of the cathedral, a sacred place, as if he was looking over the space as a protector. Parler’s inclusion of his own image was his way of gaining recognition and creating his legacy so that he would be remembered.


The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) created what is regarded as the first autonomous painting in European art. The painting, made in 1433, portrays the artist’s self-portrait as well as Greek letters spelling out “ALS ICH CHAN”, meaning “as (well as) I can”. This has been perceived to mean, “I am what I can”, which is another way of saying that he seeks to achieve the best he is capable of.


In the same period of time around 1430, North Italian artists were also creating work that reflected their own image. Having studied profiles and characters on Roman imperial coins, the painters used this knowledge to bravely use them on the newer portrait medals. This was seen in 1450 when Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) created his own self-portrait on a cast medal.

There are reasons why self-portraiture emerged during the time it did. To accurately portray their own image artists needed flat mirrors, which weren’t accessible outside of Venice where they were invented until the 15th century. In the 15th and 16th century there was an increase in awareness of self identity just as there was an increase in literature observing the self. This awareness of self allowed artists to use their art to explore their own characters. Another component in the establishment of self-portraiture is the change in status of artists in the 15th and 16th century from the creation of academies and art theory that elevated appreciation of the intellectual aspects of work rather than the physical technique. Artists using themselves as a subject allowed artists the freedom for experimentation without the interference of the sitter or by the organisation required attaining sitters. For example, this enabled Rembrant to explore chiaroscuro, which he incorporated, into several of his historical paintings. Van Gogh’s work is another example in how through his multitude of self-portraits he experimented with technique and developed the brushwork of Impressionism and neo-Expressionism.

Early self-portraits were examples of artists subtly making a claim to their work and trying to gain recognition for their talent. By including their likeness in the work they created was a way of making a signature through imagery. Later, artists began creating self-portraits as a means of displaying their psyche or for practical reasons such as developing their technique. Through self-portraiture artists also experimented with alternative dress, poses and contexts. Documenting their image over time also provided an insight into the physical changing and aging of the artists as well as the psychological state and mood of the artists at the time the painting was created. The 20th century saw artists using self-portraits to illustrate their psychological states and allowed the works to explore their own sense of social identity.

Self-portraits can serve various purposes such as objectifying themselves in copying their image, to showcase their practical skills in the medium itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries self-portraits became a marketing tool for artists to display their skill to potential clients for portraits. Self-portraits also served as documentation of artists that worked with European academies since some institutions expected artists to submit their self-portraits into their collections.

Due to the way a self-portrait presents the artist’s identity it is affected by the varying societal positions a person can take, including their relationship with gender, status and with the time in history they experience in their lifetime. A self-portrait reflects an artist’s sense of place in society. For example, the idea of the male artist being a superior figure is an ongoing theme in self-portraiture. In the late 19th and 20th centuries artists created an image of themselves as free spirits through freedom of sexuality, the qualities of the lower classes and reclusive behaviour. This image’s purpose was to raise the male artists above the higher classes of society through separating them from social norms. The early 20th century saw an increase in the amount of self-portraits of artists with their nude models and lovers to amalgamate their artistic creativity and sexuality. These aspects of artistic ability, social identity and gender in male artists’ work were also apparent in female artists’ work. Women were used as nude models in academies and art schools but weren’t allowed to be artists, to ‘study from life’, until the end of the 19th century. Many of the earliest self-portraits by female artists were displaying themselves in their occupational setting. During the time while men were attempting to raise their status beyond their practical abilities in their practice, women were just beginning to gain recognition in their role as artists. The female artists that did depict themselves in a professional role were likely making a claim to having purpose or a right to be respected as artists.

Nowadays in contemporary self-portraiture there is a stronger subtly in how artists display self-representation. Contemporary self-portraits come in a variety of forms, synonymous with the exploration of differing mediums in contemporary work.

Along with the rise of performance art in the 1970s, Ana Mendieta was possibly the first artist to use her body in land art, describing her work as ‘earth-body’ sculptures. Frequently using her naked body to convey connection to the earth, her work could be influenced by her life in foster homes and refugee camps when she first took refuge in America, creating a sense of spirituality in belonging to the earth. Mendieta’s Silueta photographic series shows Mendieta’s oneness with the land as she camouflages herself among nature with natural materials such as flowers, feathers and mud. This performance symbolises her shadow on the earth and illustrates her relationship to the earth. This piece can be considered as a self-portrait with how it portrays her deep connection to the natural earth, her way of “reclaiming [her] roots and becoming one with nature”[2] as well as creating a bridge between the culture in which she lived and the culture she was from.


Nan Goldin presents her subjects, including her, raw and as is. She describes this as showing “exactly what [her] world looks like, without glamorization, without glorification”[3]. This photograph was taken as a reminder to herself of the violence she experienced with her ex-boyfriend at the end of their relationship. The photograph is dark and artificially lit and although she is badly bruised she looks defiantly into the camera, confidently presenting herself as she is, bruises and all. She appears well groomed and glamorous which is starkly juxtaposed with the harsh bruises on her face. This self-portrait is an emotionally raw presentation and despite making herself vulnerable through displaying her personal afflictions, her character is shown through her confidence. Using photography as a medium here shows an honest reality that a medium such as paint possibly couldn’t illustrate as effectively. It adds to the shocking truth of the image making this self-portrait emotive and powerful, but doesn’t ask for sympathy.

Nan one month after being battered 1984 by Nan Goldin born 1953

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is an example of a contemporary self-portrait in which although the artist herself does not appear in the piece it is a representation of her. What she reveals in this piece is the utmost vulnerable and intimate details of her in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, “absolute mess and decay of my life”[4]. The confessional piece displays all the intimacies and indiscretions of a person’s life; dirty underwear, stained sheets, beer bottles and cigarette butts. In this display of objects lies a truth about what you don’t see behind closed doors and reveals a broken and messy aspect about Emin that everyone can relate to in some form. This piece doesn’t require Emin’s presence or an obvious image of her to be a powerful and relatable self-portrait. tracey-emin-my-bed-2

Self is an ongoing series of sculptures each made from 10 pints of Quinn’s own blood. Inspired by how Rembrandt documented his appearance changing in his self-portraits, Quinn has created 5 pieces in the series every 5 years, over 20 years in total, which serves as a documentation of passing time and his ageing throughout the series. Comparing his pieces to Rembrandt’s self-portraits, however, Quinn sees Self as “a 21st-century vision of progress”[5]. Quinn describes the piece to be “like a living sculpture”[6] in how the substance of the piece is a material detrimental to living and how the piece needs to be kept in a case with a supply of electricity to retain its frozen form. The dependence on electricity relates to Quinn’s experience with dependency on alcohol earlier in his career. Upon the occasion of his death, Quinn has instructed for a final version of Self to be created using the blood from his dead body. To end his practice with a final Self gives a greater sense to what the series is. Though the pieces are frozen in time, they rely on Quinn’s existence to be able to be produced. Quinn sees this as means to a pure self-portrait, “to sculpt your own body, from your own body”[7]. Once Quinn no longer exists, the Self series will remain as a physical demonstration of Quinn’s legacy, remaining frozen for as long as they depend on the electricity that supports them. Since the series not only is a representational form of Quinn’s appearance but the medium used is such a pure element of his physical being, Quinn takes the meaning of a self-portrait further than traditional works of the genre. While traditional self-portraits would be on a 2D plane, Quinn’s series moves beyond being sculptural and questions how true a self-portrait can be and to this he presents a response: a true self-portrait is made from the same elements that you are.

Jenny Saville’s work challenges traditional notions of beauty and explores the form of the female body, typically females that are obese. Referring to the male-dominated genre of nude painting she was surrounded by early in her career, Saville said that she “wasn’t interested in admired or idealised beauty”[8].

She has famously depicted the nude bodies of transgender and intersex people as well as bodies prepared to enter cosmetic surgery. Her work bears insight into non-conventional forms of beauty and bodies that wouldn’t traditionally be celebrated in society. The way Saville depicts her nude subjects observes the malleability of flesh and contrasts against traditional nudes of idealised muses throughout art history, her intentions being “to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies”[9].

Saville’s painting Branded is the product of not liking “to be the one just looking or just looked at”[10], saying that when it comes to being a painter or the subject of a painting, “[she wants] both roles”[11]. The paintings displays an exaggerated form of Saville’s figure, colours uneven and imperfect. The way her fat hangs demonstrates the bloated anxiety women feel about their bodies and the way society moulds women’s attitudes to their body weight. Words are scratched into her skin, the same words used to describe women: precious, decorative, supportive, irrational, delicate and petite. Simple words that can be toxic in their condescension and the way they confine women to stereotypes.


Saville doesn’t hold back in displaying herself the same way she presents her subjects, in her collaboration with photographer Glen Luchford she moulds and stretches her flesh in distorted ways never seen before, even having gained weight for the project in order to exaggerate the substance of her flesh. With Saville’s body pressed and contorted against the glass surface, Luchford’s camera captures all the textures and tones of the skin. The way the series presents Saville like a biological sample imitates the discomfort of the socialised pressure of the beauty industry which through excessive exposure turns our critiques of beauty in on ourselves.

Saville’s self-portraits don’t spare any ego she may have; presenting herself in the same manner she would present an anonymous subject. Including herself in her narrative creates a pleasant sense of inclusion in how she isn’t just an observer but also plays as a subject.

Contemporary works such as Marc Quinn’s and Jenny Saville’s present new takes in the traditional genre and question the parameters of what a self-portrait entails. Self-portraits in the contemporary art world are more than a representational image of the artist, they examine the concept of self and analyse their identities beyond the basics of the aesthetic. From the first self-portraits to contemporary works today we can see how the genre has progressed from mere craftsmen exercising their skills outside of their profession to present day artists defying expectations and searching beyond themselves in order to challenge the norms of what makes a self-portrait.



  1. Peter Parler (19/03/2017) Available at: (Accessed: 19/03/2017)
  2. Jan van Eyck. (1433) Portrait of a Man [Oil on oak] National Gallery. Available at: (Accessed: 18/03/2017)
  3. Leon Battista Alberti. (c. 1450) Self-Portrait Medal. [Cast bronze] Musée de Louvre. Available at: (Accessed: 18/03/2017)
  4. Ana Mendieta. (1973) Imagen de Yagul [Chromogenic print] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Available at: (Accessed: 19/03/2017)
  5. Nan Goldin. (1984) Nan one month after being battered [Photograph, colour, Cibachrome print, on paper mounted onto board] Available at: (Accessed: 19/03/2017)
  6. Tracey Emin. (1998) My Bed [Mattress, linens, pillows, objects] The Duerckheim Collection. Available at: (Accessed: 20/03/2017)
  7. Marc Quinn. (1991-2011) Self [Blood (artist’s), stainless steel, Perspex and refrigeration equipment] Available at: (Accessed: 21/03/2017)
  8. Jenny Saville. (1992) Branded [Oil and mixed media on canvas] Available at: (Accessed: 03/04/2017)
  1. Jenny Saville & Glen Luchford. (1995-1996) Closed Contact #14 [Cibachrome print] Available at: (Accessed: 03/04/2017)
  2. Jenny Saville & Glen Luchford. (1995-1996) Closed Contact [Cibachrome print] Available at: (Accessed: 03/04/2017)
  3. Jenny Saville & Glen Luchford. (1995-1996) Closed Contact #14 [Cibachrome print] Available at: (Accessed: 03/04/2017)



[1] Rebel, 2008

[2] Moure, 1996

[3] Goldin, 1986

[4] Emin, 2015

[5] Fullerton, 2014

[6] Nairne, 2010

[7] Self, 2009

[8] Mackenzie, 2005

[9] Cooke, 2012

[10] Mackenzie, 2005

[11] Mackenzie, 2005


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