Great portraiture is one of art’s many surprises. Portraits, of course, have long been considered historical documents of what the sitter looked like but EPPH suspects, despite most opinion over the centuries claiming otherwise, that an accurate likeness was rarely the primary goal of a great portraitist. And while a painter-poet (our definition of an artist who paints) can depict a sitter as his or her own alter ego in many different ways (see THEMES) , one of the most common and intriguing, it seems to me, is the fusion of the artist's own facial features with the sitter's. The evidence available is fairly abundant and far exceeds the content of this site to-date. First of all, we are not alone. Other art historians have noticed the phenomenon too (see below). The most compelling example is the portrait series of British monarchs from Holbein's Henry VIII to Lucian Freud's Elizabeth II. You can judge for yourself in the gallery of English sovreigns and other famous Brits. There are similar selections on Italian, Spanish, French and American portraiture as well. The series of early American presidents is another eye-opener.
Overall there are hundreds of examples in the Gallery section from every century since the early Renaissance and we have published a 97-page book titled Every Painter Paints Himself (what else?) stuffed with comparisons and relevant quotes. You can find samples on the Book page. Nor, as mentioned above, is EPPH the first to mention something odd happening. A few art historians have been surprised in their own area of research, usually within the work of a single artist. Perhaps because they are specialists, they seem unaware of similar findings elsewhere or, in consequence, the continuity of the practice. Nevertheless, all portraits by Petrus Christus in the 14th century are said by a Christus expert to be "consistent in their physiognomy" with two famous portraits of different people looking precisely the same.1 Another specialist writes that Hans Memling's portraits have "a family resemblance"2. And two major artists in the Italian Renaissance were notorious for it even in their own day. Contemporaries said that the two painters "repeated their own physiognomies in almost any face in their paintings because they simply could not avoid painting themselves." Frank Zöllner then adds that "the visual evidence seems to confirm that in fact Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli painted themselves." Giovanni Bellini's slightly later portraits are also said to be of "a biological likeness".3
For lack of space and to add variety, let's fast forward to 19th century Paris. Edouard Manet's facial features are frequently seen by scholars in the faces of his sitters and his historical characters.4 And Heather McPherson has commented on the gaze common in Paul Cézanne's self-portraits: "The ambiguity of that gaze, which appears both to look outward and turn inward, is one of the most disquieting aspects of Cézanne's self-portraits....The portraits [of others], which often portray the same long-suffering models whom he knew intimately, are in some instances co-extensions of the self-portraits."5 In Edgar Degas' work too, Luzius Keller saw a facial resemblance in many of his early portraits6 while Felix Bauman wondered whether the so-called Impressionist fused his facial features onto someone else's face.7.
Thus, despite the long-held belief in a portrait likeness, we suggest that you keep your mind open. In looking through the entries on EPPH consider whether poet-painters really did depict their own self-representations intentionally without the knowledge of their patrons and still do. If you are willing to spend time on EPPH and read about a range of artists - and not just those you prefer - you may find grounds for questioning the conventional history of art. Your independent study in museums will help too. And that might lead you, as it has for other readers, to a deeper analysis of what an artwork represents and, moreover, a lifetime of aesthetic satisfaction. But the key point is: you don't need to be an expert. You can do it too.
1. Marilyn Ainsworth, Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 1994, p.184
2. Lorne Campbell, “Memling and the Netherlandish Portrait Tradition” in Memling and the Art of Portraiture (New York: Phaidon) 2005, p.57
3. Rona Goffen, Giovanni Bellini (Yale University Press) 1989, p.92
4. Paul Abe Isaacs, The Immobility of the Self in the Art of Edouard Manet: A Study with special emphasis on the relationship of his imagery to that of Gustave Flaubert and Stéphane Mallarmé, PhD Diss., Brown University, 1976, p.51; Carol Armstrong, “To Paint, To Point, To Pose: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, ed. P.H.Tucker (Cambridge University Press) 1998, pp.101.
5. Heather McPherson, The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge University Press) 2001, p.119
6. “Degas’s portraits can often be recognized as his, not just by their stylistic and thematic features, but often by the nature of the facial features too." Luzius Keller, “Portraiture between Tradition and Avantgarde: Proust and Degas” in Degas Portraits (Zurich: Kunsthaus) 1994, pp.132.
7. “In our opinion it cannot be ruled out that Degas here overlaid a copy with certain features of his own appearance....Did Degas in fact pick out this face, which in no way plays a dominating role in the overall composition, from the multitude of figures depicted by Pintoricchio because it enabled him to overlay it to some extent with his own?" Felix Bauman, “Degas’ Early Self-Portraits” in op. cit., p.164 .
Most Recent Articles
Look at art from every which way you can. You never know what you might see.
Artists often identify with other artists, using them as an alter ego. Here is an exceptionally clever one.
All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)
If it looks odd, there must be a reason. See Balthus horsing around.
In a short addendum to Part 1, see how Balthus conveyed his alter ego
Learn how to deconstruct a portrait by Balthus using a few simple principles
See how Basquiat's Boone turns facial resemblance on its head and becomes Basquiat.
This masterpiece, like many before and since, must have been the source of inspiration for Picasso's Cubism. As unlikely as that may sound, it all depends on what you can see in The Birth of Venus that experts never have. You'll be one of the first...
How others have already recognized Cézanne's late portraits as "portraits" of himself.
If you look carefully, you will be amazed at what you can find
See how Caravaggio's iconic painting makes art's basic paradigm crystal clear
Don't let the belief that Caravaggio was a Realist lead you to think each of his faces has a different identity.
If a painting looks as though there are two realities, as here, the answer is often the same
Even a minor sketch does not escape a great artist's need to identify
Find out how the colloquial term for a female rider inspired an artist
Cranach saw a resemblance in someone else's work and made it his own, a common practice in poetic art
See how Durer shaped the Virgin and Child into the form of his own monogram
See how Degas subtly changed his copies after the Old Masters to fit his own (and art's) agenda
Is Degas' Little Dancer just a dancer, a study in realism? Or is she......?
Find out how Eakins' portrait of his father becomes one of himself
See how a contemporary artist still uses the language of the great masters
See a concise statement in mid sixteenth-century England of how every painter paints himself
Fouquet's king, Bernini's Richelieu and Rigaud's Louis XIV have more in common with your innermost self than you probably realize
See how Hals used his monogram to signal an alter ego
Keep an eye out for the poses of painting because......
See how one of England's most famous paintings is not what everyone thinks
Learn how an artist can link himself through music to great painters before him
What you can see in a self-portrait when you think creatively. Indeed it's your job to become the painter...
Self-representation was as common in the early 15th century as the 20th and today
Conventional scholars sometimes recognize in a single work of art what we show is common in art generally.
Even at 17, Giacometti understood the hidden meaning of art
If you think like the artist and think inwards, all changes...
Don't confuse illusion with likeness in portraits; they are different
Think about who you are if, for instance, you are not yourself
Don't take a portrait at face value because art is never quite what it seems
Sent on a mission to paint a potential queen for the blood-thirsty and dangerous Henry VIII, how did Holbein "paint" himself in painting the future Queen?
© Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.