By: Valerie Oliveiro

Traces of the earliest portraits were of funeral portraits in Egypt. It was only much later in the Early Renaissance (mid 1400s) that artists began depicting themselves as the main subject or as an important character in their works. For Rubens and Rembrandt, they were just faces in a crowd but when historical scenes were depicted, the artist often modelled the characters after himself. Therefore, the painting doubled as a portrait and a historical painting.

Try to spot Botticelli above in his painting, Adoration of the Magi (1475).
Hint: He’s looking right back at you!
(Bottom right hand corner)

Other artists include:

Piero della Francesca as a sleeping soldier in Resurrection (1463)

Filippino Lippi as a figure in the crowd in Martyrdom of Saint Peter (1481)


At that time, the function of artists in society was to record history as it happened so placing themselves into history was not a problem at all. Later as portraiture grew popular among monarchs, kings and royal courts, artists decided to do self-portraits. The earliest record of a possible self-portrait was by Dutch artist, Jan van Eyck.

Are Self-Portraits reflective of the artist? Is it just an on-the-surface reflection of what they look like or does it reflect the artist’s emotional state at the time of the painting? (Immediately Van Gogh’s self-portraits come to mind.)

A depiction of reality or the artist’s projection of reality?

Women Artists

Women artists are notable producers of self-portraits; from Caterina van Hemessen to the prolific Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Frida Kahlo. They usually pictured themselves in the act of painting, or at least holding a brush and palette.

Caterina van Hemessen

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Modern self-portraits

Cubist Master Pablo Picasso often used self-portraits to depict himself in the many different guises. Often Picasso’s self portraits depicted and revealed complicated psychological insights, both personal and profound about the inner state and well being of the artist.

Often a self-portrait functions as a way of freezing mortality, storytelling, self-promotion or simply an output of emotional stress.


Henri Matisse

The portrait is one of the most curious art forms. It demands special qualities in the artist, and an almost total kinship with the model.

Oscar Wilde

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

Salvador Dali

I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the person grow to look like his portrait.

Samuel Butler

Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him.

Charles Dickens

There are only two styles of portrait painting, the serious and the smirk.

Jon Witcomb

Portraits are supposed to “look within,” but in my opinion very few people have an interior significantly different from the outside portrait.

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