Two conflicting objectives characterize portrait art in all cultures: the desire to represent the subject accurately and the desire to transform or idealize the subject. The conflict is particularly manifest in the self-portrait, the genre that gives the artist the greatest freedom from external constraints. Because the artist is his or her own cheapest and most available model, the self-portrait is the finest opportunity to make the most flattering statement or the most penetrating revelation of character of which he or she is capable. More deeply acquainted with this subject than with any other, artists are nevertheless forced to view themselves as mirror images and, as with less immediate subjects, through the distorting glass of their understanding.
Since the 6th cent. B.C. artists have often portrayed themselves with the identifying attributes of their profession such as palette, brush, and easel. During the Renaissance pictorial signatures abounded in which artists worked themselves into crowd scenes or somewhere else within a composition. Striking examples are Botticelli's confrontation of the viewer in his Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi); Ghiberti's two busts, youthful and aged, on the Doors of Paradise of the Florence cathedral baptistery; and Michelangelo's Nicodemus figure in the late Pietà (Cathedral, Florence).
Dürer was among the first masters to reveal a psychological self-awareness by means of the self-portrait, an insightful approach brought to new heights in the works of Rembrandt. Other artists, notably Jordaens, Rigaud, Ingres, and Reynolds, asserted their social and material success in their images of themselves. The classic of self-aggrandizement is Courbet's Painter's Studio (1855; Louvre). An interesting modern example of the genre is James Ensor's strange Self-Portrait (Uffizi), in which the artist appears as the only real being among a host of grotesques.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.