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A self-portrait is a type of portraiture, which is a depiction of the artist produced by themself; often as representational paintings, but can also be an abstract interpretation in various mediums including drawing, photography, and sculpture. Like portraiture - an art form that self-portrait is a subgroup of - self-portraits are also symbolic, showing their beauty, power, wealth, and sometimes reflection of inner feelings. In Western culture, a crucial period for the history of self-portraits was the Renaissance when artists began to depict themselves as a subject-matter in their works, in line with the growing interest in individualism moving away from collective ideology such as religion.

Catharina van Hemessen
Self-Portrait, 1548
Tempera on oak panel
32 x 25 cm (12.6 x 9.8 in.)
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

Catharina van Hemessen’s Self-Portrait (1548) is a remarkable example of the period, as it was one of the first to portray an artist at work: by an easel. Although unlikely that Hemessen wore the velvet dress that she is depicted with, as it would have been impractical to work in, the self-portrait shows her desire to be respected both as a woman, and an artist.

The following era, a Dutch Golden Age artist, Rembrandt van Rijn painted and documented approximately 100 self-portraits throughout his career in the middle of the 17th century, recording the process of aging in a realistic manner, opposed to portraying himself as he wished to be seen.

In 18th century London, William Hogarth made engravings of his works to make ends meet, including his famous painting The Painter and his Pug (1745), featuring the artist’s beloved pet pug, Trump. One of the most famous self-portraits of all time is Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), mirroring the challenges and frustration the artist was going through at the time; showing both desperation and hunger for his vision as an artist, and how determined van Gogh was regardless of the struggles.

While some self-portraits offer visual cues, others need more time and information to understand the symbolic meaning of the work. Frida Kahlo - a Mexican painter known for her surrealist self-portraits - portrays two sides of herself in The Two Fridas (1939); one before her marriage to Diego Rivera, and the second, after her divorce. Some self-portraits are more abstract, with examples from Francis Bacon’s distorted face of himself to Louise Bourgeois’ depiction of herself as a four legged animal.

Frida Kahlo
The Two Fridas, 1939
Oil on canvas
174 x 173 cm (68.5 x 68.1 in.)
Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

Self-portrait paintings in contemporary art are still a much loved genre, perhaps owed to human nature, wanting to explore oneself and re-lay it to the world. An American painter Elizabeth Osborne makes a series of self-portraits and female nudes, which explores her life experiences, as well as documenting her stories and surroundings. In her portraits of other females and self-portraits, props like flower vases and mirrors appear; Self Portrait in Studio (1967) is especially captivating with a use of the mirror, literally reflecting Osborne and exposing her gesture and expression.

Zanele Muholi
Zazi, 2019
Gelatin silver print in frame
59.4 x 53.8 cm (23.4 x 21.2 in.)
Edition 4 of 8
Courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong

The invention of photography replaced much of portrait paintings, eventually influencing the way artists made their self-portraiture and becoming the second most used method to create self-portraits. A Norwegian artist Edvard Munch , who was famous for his paintings, prints, and watercolors, also took photographs of himself , as well as his friends and family. The pioneer of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol is also best known for his multicolor silkscreen portraits, which became his signature style.

Another American artist Cindy Sherman explores female stereotypes, reflecting on portrayal of women in modern society through self-portrait photographic works, using her face as a canvas and often dressing up as imagined characters. Another photographer that puts focus on representation through self-portrait is a South African photographer, Zanele Muholi, but in her case emphasizing the importance in the preserving and documenting histories of LGBTI individuals and communities.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Frida Kahlo

Related categories






Oil Painting

Individual Portrait

Abstract Painting

Documentary Photography

Symbolic Images/Objects

Portrait Painting

Unconsciousness / Subconsciousness

Oil on Canvas


Searching for Identity

Figurative Painting


Gelatin Silver Print


Gentle and Smooth Brushstrokes

Oil Paint

Gender Issues

Figurative Drawing

Portrait Photography

Personal/Social Identity

Short and Quick Brushstrokes


Soft and Meticulous Brushstrokes

Figurative Art