What is a Self-Portrait? - Definition, Artists & Examples

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  • 00:00 What are Self-Portraits?
  • 1:27 Identifying the Self-Portrait
  • 3:10 Medium Specificity
  • 3:37 The Selfie
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history

Explore aspects of style and form that artists use in modes of self-expression. Consider ways of identifying and interpreting visual styles in painting and photography. Self-portraits evoke an artist's way of seeing him or herself.

What are Self-Portraits?

Is it possible to distinguish between the object depicted in a painting and the artist's way of seeing? The medium of painting, unlike photography, does not necessarily abide by the laws of reality. The artist is free to represent anything his or her mind can imagine. Photography, in contrast, is constrained to the laws of physics when it comes to what it's possible to depict.

What's the difference between a painting and a self-portrait? How is a self-portrait different from a selfie? Art historians have sought to answer these and other such questions by locating the boundaries of the media. Defining the differences between media aids in distinguishing formal practices and stylistic tendencies. For example, a photographic self-portrait will likely convey a realistic representation of the artist, as opposed to a painting that allows for a broader interpretation of the artist's way of seeing, which can be conveyed by way of pictorial expressionism.

While a portrait refers to any painting that depicts a human figure, a self-portrait refers to a painting that depicts the artist that produced it. Self-portraiture, whether produced in the medium of painting or of photography, is its own distinct genre of art, like that of the landscape or the still life. That is, the common features of all self-portraits unify the genre in content and means of expression.

Identifying the Self-portrait

Generally, there are three ways to tell the difference between a portrait and a self-portrait. One of the best ways to discern a self-portrait is by its title. Artists will often identify their self-portraits as such. Another strategy is to notice what sort of action is being depicted. Self-portraits and portraits both often depict a figure gazing in the direction of the artist. A self-portrait will often depict the artist at work in the process of painting his or her own image. A third way is to view the picture in context of the artist's other works. The artist's subject matter may cue the viewer to the identity and character of his or her self-image. For example, American artist Norman Rockwell's Triple Self-portrait illustrates the first and second of these principles.

Norman Rockwell, Triple Self-Portrait (1960)
Norman Rockwell Self-Portrait

The third principle can be illustrated by looking at the differences between photoreal and expressionist styles in self-portraiture. Photorealism refers to a style of painting that mimics a naturalistic way of seeing. Rockwell's self-portrait is painted in a photorealist style. In contrast, expressionism refers to a style of painting in which the artist aims to represent a way of feeling or seeing as opposed to an objective, naturalistic depiction of reality. Expressionist self-portraits convey a subjective impression of the artist's self-image, defined as his or her sense of self. In this way, the artist seeks to represent him or herself on an emotional as opposed to pictorial level. For example, Modigliani's 1919 Self-portrait conveys an expressionistic sense of self in use of color and composition.

Amedeo Modigliani, Self-Portrait (1919)
Modigliani self-portrait

Medium Specificity

Compare for example two of artist Edgar Degas' self-portraits.

One was produced in the medium of photography:

Edgar Degas, Self-portrait (photograph) (1895)
Degas self-portrait photograph

The other in the medium of painting:

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait (1895)
Degas Self-portrait painting

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