Research exercise: Self portraits and portraits

A far more interesting subject that I had expected… I looked at the self portraits that were recommended in the classical tradition of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Munch and Durer and without question found the one that for me I personally preferred was of the 13 year old Albrect Durer done around 1484 using silvertip (a silver stylus type of pen that was used on specially prepared paper, parchment, wood or even metal).  The portrait was realistic and simple with a maturity about it that if you looked you would not have expected the artist to either be the ‘sitter’ or just 13 years old – it is of no surprise to learn that an older contemporary was Da Vinci and Durer’s style very much reminds me of him.

The other classical portraits were interesting to look at as they covered a number of movements and I feel that rather than capture an exact likeness they captured more of artists emotions – what others see in ourselves is not what we see. The classical painters and artists portrayed themselves very much in the style of their individual time periods or what went on their personal lives – Munch is a prime example as you can see a tortured soul in his portrait in 1909 which was a reflection of his life and of the tumultuous time period he lived in. I have begun to have a serious appreciation of Rembrandt and Van Gogh – the latter I have studied regarding his mark making for Textiles and although they are very reflective of their social, economic and political times they seem to accurately depict themselves in a similar way a modern photograph would (or at least as much as we can tell).

In contrast the modern photographic self portraits of Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Sam Taylor-Wood and Sarah Lucas portray a very different image and express personalities of interests or even some designed to be controversial.  I found Sarah Lucas’s works intriguing because not knowing her as an artist leaves me questioning why she has photographed herself in this way – her self portraits seemed designed to capture your attention and ask those questions whilst Bruce Nauman based his series of self portraits on puns in the art world such as the sculptures of humans that are fountains.  Nauman’s work almost pokes fun at classical art but at the same time is thought provoking.  The only work I am unsure about is Lucien Freud’s but that is due to his style which is very heavy but at the same time this style shows his masculinity in the way that he desired – I see a vulnerability too somehow which comes out even if he didn’t want it too.

The two that have really caught me off guard are the 2 I have heard about and have always said I disliked – Cindy Sherman and Sam Taylor-Wood.  Cindy Sherman’s self portraits have been parody stereotypes of women in various scenarios and taken over a period of it seems 15 years – they reflect the economic and political period of 1978 through to the early 1990’s as well as the social and cultural aspects and yet are brutally honest portraits which may be due to them being shot in black and white.

Sam Taylor-Wood did a series called Gracefully Suspended which explored weight and gravity – this was an entirely different style yet again … the fluidity and shape of her figure were the focus of the photograph as opposed to her face which gave an anonymous aspect to the pictures.  A second series call the Bram Stokers Chair series was on a similar vein as she used a chair and lighting to create shadows that silhouetted and enhanced the self portraits.

The different styles of how we portray ourselves are very dependent on the time period and materials able to be used – Lucien Freud’s work influenced by the great classical artists whilst the photographic artists used the modern technology available to them which contrast with the classical fine arts.

jan-lievensI decided to look more carefully at a self portrait done by Jan Lievens (1607-1674 Netherlands) in the early 1650’s when he would have been in his early 40’s and now displayed in The National Gallery.

The portrait is very typical of Van Dyke’s portrait style that exhibited a ‘casual aristocratic elegance’ and this in fact due to Lievens being influenced by him after coming to England in the 1630’s and then after 1635 in Antwerp. King of England at the time was William III who was a Prince of Orange of the House of Orange-Nassau and the clothing Lievens wore is very much a court style and research shows that he had aspired to be a court painter – the painting is similar to some of William III and done in oil on canvas which was typical of the Baroque or Dutch Golden Age style.  There is no information on where this portrait would have been hung or who would have seen it – lost in time I suspect sadly. The painting is 96.2 cm by 77 cm.  I find many works of this period that the clothing and background tend to be quite dark in tone with just highlights on the clothing around the hands/wrists and face which enhance the tones of the skin and serve in the same way as a photographer would use filters of lighting tricks to do the same.

by Joseph Wright, oil on canvas, circa 1783-1785

The second portrait I chose was from the National Portrait Gallery website and was done by an artist known as ‘Wright of Derby’ – Joseph Wright (1734-1797). Joseph Wright was known as landscape and portrait painter and after periods of travel and work in Italy, Bath and London he settled in the provinces and over time painted several of the leading figures of the Midlands Enlightenment and Lunar Society. Wright had a great interest in the industrial and scientific developments which were shaping the industrial world at the time and Sir Richard Arkwright was an inventor, engineer and entrepreneur and certainly one of the leading figures of the Industrial Revolution.   The portrait I chose was painted around 1790 is one familiar to myself after 15 years living in Derby – Arkwright was a local man who is classed as the founding father of the factory system on which the whole Industrial Revolution was based and his first mill was at Cromford, near Matlock.  Arkwright had a later connection with the Silk Mill in Derby, founded by John Lombe, due to his developments in the technology that spun cotton.  Like Lieven’s self portrait there is no information on where this portrait originally hung but its size is 29 1/2 inches by 24 3/4 inches so  just under 1 metre square – I discovered however an article that describes 4 portraits including one of his family that were commissioned and all painted by Wright to be hung in the dining room at the family estate near Cromford (Willersley Castle).  So it seems these paintings were private family paintings originally and would have been seen by any guests of the Arkwright’s along with family members.  Wright himself enjoyed experimenting with lighting effects and candlelit subjects and was known as one of the leading figures in the Romanticism movement – I recognise his style as there are many similar portraits at Chatsworth House (which I will be visiting later in the Spring).

So having studied all these portraits and self portraits how would I portray myself? am I brave enough to try a self portrait? … the last question at the point of writing I am unsure!  The first question I have been thinking about as trying to decide whether I would leave things in or enhance other aspects or how I would explain how I look …. my fiance’s description of beautiful is very biased (and appreciated!) but …

…. I guess the obvious is I have green/grey eyes that change with the light and blonde slightly unruly frizzy/curly hair which I have to tame.  My hair is now greying with age and has 2 grey streaks that frame my face (now blending in slowly).  I have a slight mono-brow which is hidden by my glasses and a nose that bends to one side with a bump.  I have quite thin lips which are quite pale pink in tone with the lines of age appearing at the side.  My eyes are not too deep set and framed with long eyelashes (wet mascara always streaks my glasses if I don’t let it dry enough) and my fiance says my eyes are curious which does describe how I constantly look around me inquisitively.  I have the lines classed as laughter lines that show when laughing or smiling but are now leaving faint marks and wrinkles.  Tone of my face tends to be pale and sometimes with a pink glow on my cheeks when I have been out.  As for teeth? I would prefer to leave out but I smile openly and my front upper teeth are slightly crooked so if I drew myself smiling I would have to include.  If I drew myself showing my right hand side I would have to include the faint scar that runs down the side of my neck from in front at the top of my ear to nearly the bottom of my neck – slightly bigger and pinker at the base of my earlobe so I wonder if I would only draw from my left but then again that scar is a part of me and my history in the same way the bump on my nose and its slightly crooked appearance is.  Do I show my hair the colour it used to be? a golden blonde or the mousey blonde/whitish grey it is becoming… the answer to that is whether I would paint or draw myself as I see myself i.e. younger than I actually am or whether I would paint or draw myself honestly with the lines and scars of age that tell my story.  A black and white photo would be brutally honest and a colour maybe slightly more giving particularly if I use Joseph Wright’s candlelight.  I have the remains of freckles too that show in the summer still on big cheeks when I smile. I think my smile is quite big and apparently it reaches my eyes but I am aware that if I portrayed myself as angry or sad my eyes go much greyer.  I am told I have a child like face that shows my curiosity in my surroundings and apparently I look very trusting so I question how I would show this … Robert Lenkiewicz captured that curiosity in his portrait of me aged 5.  I have only described my face as it is the rest I would leave out.

Tutor notes post feedback:  “In terms of Cindy Sherman, look at her first series of photographs (Untitled Film Stills) and her use of layers of representation and the concept of voyeurism.  Similarly, examine how Sarah Lucas challenges in all of her self-portraits the concept of the gender masquerade (subverting and disrupting our comfort zones).  Investigate the role of sexuality in works such as Fried Eggs, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, and Au Naturel.”  This suggestion is not something I have acted upon as yet but is something that I am now curious about – my understanding of photography and the ways in which it can be used to examine ourselves and how the world sees us in terms of gender and also sexuality is something I am now increasingly curious about.


My Modern Met. 2016.  Sam Taylor-Wood – Gracefully Suspended (10 photos) [online].  [Date Accessed: February  2015].  Available from:

National Gallery. 2015.  Self Portrait early 1650’s Jan Lievens [online]. [Date Accessed:  February 2015].  Available from:

National Portrait Gallery. 2015.  Sir Richard Arkwright [online]. [Date Accessed:  February 2015].  Available from:

Tate. (date unknown).  Sarah Lucas born 1962 [online].  [Date Accessed:  February 2015].  Available from:

Tate.  (date unknown).  Cindy Sherman born 1954 [online].  [Date Accessed: February 2015].  Available from:

Whitney Museum of Modern Art. 2016.  Bruce Nauman Self-Portrait as a Fountain [online].  [Date Accessed: February 2015].  Available from:




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