elf-portraits include some of the greatest works of all time. As a genre, self-portraits have so much to say. With some self-portraits, the artists look as if they were painting themselves into the haven of artistic greatness. Others appear to show self-mockery and modesty. They have a story to tell for those that can see it, that can portray all sorts of messages. Self-portraiture is also about the time and skill that the artists bestowed on their own representations. Whatever your views on this old artistic genre, they were that days answer to the newfangled selfies of today, a paintbrush or pencil in hand, instead of a front-facing camera or selfie-stick.
William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist
Some might say that William Dobson is the ‘Forgotten Man’ of British Art. The court ‘painter on hand’ to Charles I in the 1640s following the death of Anthony van Dyck, is the genius English painter that should never be allowed to be forgotten. William Dobson’s Portrait of the Artist is one of the best self-portraits created in British art. Dobson’s youthful features are a mop of curly black hair down to his shoulders, dark eyes, skin punctuated by rigid eyebrows, a prominent mustache, and a minimalist goatee. You can’t really tell if he’s happy or sad – but Dobson must have been happy about his face and there is nothing wrong with that. His facial expressions appearing to shift from wariness to a glare of satisfaction. Dobson painted forceful images of himself and his second wife Judith in Portrait Of The Artist’s Wife (c. 1630-40), as companion works. The paintings were finally and rightly reunited after 30 years apart and are currently on display at the Tate. William Dobson was certainly a true genius of self-portraiture. Not to be referred to as Doby.
Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas
This ensemble portrait by Velázquez is a stunning as it is frustrating and mysterious. Not only does Velázquez paint himself into this portrait, like Alfred Hitchcock making a cameo appearance in one of his own films, there are some other interesting subjects there too. Thankfully some of the subjects in the painting are identifiable but there are some hidden clues put there like a ‘Spot the Ball Competition’, just waiting for you to find them. In the center of the painting, there is Infanta Margarita Teresa, who reigned from 1666 to 1673. She was to be Velázquez’s subject in many of his portraits. Then there are the Maids of Honor, who are surrounded by the princess, and some servants. The patining itself is a day-in-the-life perspective of a Spanish Court. Above the princess’s head, you can spot a dark wooden frame with two figures within it. They are King Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria – her mother and father. Drawing your eyes to the left of the picture is Velázquez himself – an emerging photobomb, standing there with brush in hand, not a selfie-stick or front-facing camera in sight.
Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait
It was not until after his death, that Vincent van Gogh was appreciated. Only having sold one painting during his lifetime, it’s his paintings of sunflowers, textured landscapes, and his portraits and self-portraits that are now widely recognized throughout the world. This self-portrait is emotive in color, yielding energetic brushwork, and was painted by him shortly after suffering a breakdown in Saint Remy. Van Gogh painted no less than 36 self-portraits during his lifetime of 37 years. This three-quarter length pose captures his true character, with a serious expression, art props in hand, that those other great painters used in their own self-portraits. It shows Vincent van Gogh both as a self-conscious, thinking individual, perhaps conveying a wish to be taken seriously as an artist. It’s anyone’s guess as to what he is trying to say to the viewer in this self-portrait. Perhaps he just wished to see and be seen.