Reflect on Portraiture: Artists creating themselves

A few weeks ago, I made the distinction between selfies and self-portraiture, but I didn’t touch on self-portraiture itself. When I look at a self-portrait the first question that pops into my head is “why did the artist paint themselves?”. Paint is expensive, both then and now, so why do artists choose to paint themselves over more commercially popular subjects. There’s no one answer to this; the function of a self-portrait varies from artist to artist. Artists might make a self-portrait in order to practice, using themselves as models as they are to hand. They might make them as gifts to give to their patrons. There’s many other reasons, aside from the practical why an artist might depict themselves, but I’ll leave that for you to consider.

Self-portraits are an important genre in the study of art history, as they show us how artists chose to present themselves. By looking at self-portraits made during different time periods we can see how the role of an artist changes in different societies. I find looking at the self-portraits of female Renaissance artists particularly interesting, as like Isabella d’Este from a few weeks ago; these women had to find a way to fashion themselves as virtuous women despite doing what was considered a man’s job.

  Sofonisba Anguissola , Self Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel , 1556, oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm, Łańcut Castle.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, 1556, oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm, Łańcut Castle.

Sofonisba Anguissola toes the line fantastically. Anguissola chose to include a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in her self-portrait, a clear allusion to her piety and also a demonstration of her skill as a painter. She paints herself in action, asserting herself as a serious painter. Anguissola balances out these elements of self-promotion (definitely a masculine quality during the Renaissance) by dressing herself extremely modestly. She wears a black dress with no ornamentation and her hair is simply plaited into a bun. Compare this to the portraits of Isabella d’Este, painted around 20 years earlier, and you can see that Anguissola has presented herself far more modestly (modesty being a valued quality in women during the Renaissance).

  Titian,  Portrait of Isabella d’Este , c.1534-1536, oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Titian, Portrait of Isabella d’Este, c.1534-1536, oil on canvas, 102 x 64 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

In comparison with Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi is more risqué in her self-depiction. I said earlier that Anguissola painted herself in action, but this is really nothing compared to Gentileschi, who paints herself stretching over the canvas with sleeves rolled up and dishevelled hair. Gentileschi’s self-portrait feels candid, like she has been caught mid-painting, while Anguissola’s feels posed and self-aware. Gentileschi titling the painting: Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting is a bold statement; Gentileschi is claiming to embody painting. Gentileschi’s clothing is far more ornate than Anguissola’s; perhaps this is a symbol of her success, showing off the wealth she has accumulated through selling paintings.

  Artemisia Gentileschi,    Self- Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) , 1638-1639, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2, Royal Collection (Currently on show at the Royal Academy in the  Charles I: King and Collector  exhibition).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self- Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), 1638-1639, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2, Royal Collection (Currently on show at the Royal Academy in the Charles I: King and Collector exhibition).

What I find fascinating about both images is that Anguissola and Gentileschi both chose to depict themselves as artists. They see their profession as key to their identities, more important than their more culturally accepted roles as wives and mothers. Their paintings are self-mythologising: Anguissola and Gentileschi are building their identities as artists through their self-portraits, even if these identities were not accepted as reality at the time. Would other male peers accept Gentileschi as the embodiment of painting? Perhaps not, but by painting herself as the allegory of painting Gentileschi tells us how she views herself and how she wants to be viewed by others.

So, next time you look at a self-portrait, really consider what the artist is trying to tell you about themselves, what identity they are trying to fashion and what myth they are promoting.