Updated: Jul 6
Historically, many artists painted self portraits. I would imagine that some cave paintings were not only paintings of successful hunts but a celebration of themselves in their images of humans... like those classical historical battle paintings, maybe, look, see what we did. I particularly like as sarcasm the revisionist paintings of like John the Baptist or Christ but 1000 years after the fact as white men, when in fact they were probably people of color. But that is probably me being a person living in the time of woke consciousness or black lives matter.
As an aside, I will point out that the the first surviving painting of Christ (posthumous by a few hundred years) appears to be a person of color, I’m not certain a black man, but it looked that way to me, and he, if he did exist historically and not just metaphorically, was certainly not white (I don’t doubt a Christ, Mohamed, or Buddha existed... the miracles, maybe, were more like just prophetic, metaphoric... or alien super intelligence). And being raised a Christian, that the paintings of St. George (Muslim, I believe) and St. Augustine (Roman North African) were painted as old white dudes, too. Just saying. As to organized religion... I’ll say I’m very spiritual but believe the religions and extremism are currently disbelievable, distasteful and immoral... I mean, the whole Constantinople conference and deleting the book of Mary Magdalen from the Bible or the Georgian calendar supplanting the pagan holiday calendar. It’s more like a narrative. And mistranslations... homosexual for pedophile. These histories were also passed down orally for a long time, long enough to do the telephone game. I put more stock in ancient aliens being passed off as Gods, angels and descending from the heavens. The 10 foot red headed giants are fact... we have their bones. The elongated skulls are real. The superneolith stones that we couldn’t lift today with our cranes, plus that whole UFO, business. So, it’s all possible... Narcissis for example... we don’t have Minotaur bones though. I’m not knocking religion, though, those Icon paintings and Sistine Chapel frescos... heck, even the wall murals in Pompeii or Greek Statuary. Glorious!
But the narcissism of the cave paintings and then the traditional classical paintings where the artists painted themselves into the paintings, lead up to the self portrait, proper. The impressionists and post impressionists at least painted each other. So we have Neanderthals and Netherlanders. Jan Van Eyck (1433) gets cred for the first one (although it wasn’t a “thing”) and then there is Rembrandt... Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606). Fast forward to Van Gogh and Egon Schiele. At least Scheile was figure painting whole body nudes for lack of a model. But I should point out that even the commissioned busts of Roman emperors was narcissism. Although we have whole subreddits for colorized lifelike heads now... art, but not narcissism. And I’m sure the court portraiture was a little self aggrandizement... making something larger... like the cod piece on King Henry VIII’s armor... although that’s leaning toward psychological warfare and not just propaganda. But today, thankfully the stars have aligned, as they did during the arts and crafts movement and later Art Deco... those decadent 20’s, and we today we know art serves the greater good, public wellbeing, the 500 murals of depression era federal job creation, pre photography historical presidential portraiture... now just tradition, and we have self portraiture as a genre... or idiom of art, if art has idioms. They say music and art have parallels. So I’m pitching that self portraiture is movement... regardless of style. It’s assigned in art schools, I’m sure.
I didn’t get to go to art school, so I don’t have a self portrait in my twenties. Photos yes... I guess I could paint from photographs. I started painting seriously at age 36. I think my first real self portrait where I sat in front of a mirror was painted after I was a father, so 48 or so. I remember it was a full moon and summer and I painted outdoors at night under a canopy with an industrial halogen lamp, and bats and mosquitos (The Feast of the Mosquitos). I remember telling my then wife I was going to stay up all night and paint, and she was like, sigh, you have tickets to a workshop 3 weeks from now, that you got for your birthday... supportive, but with boundaries.
My second self portrait was more along the lines of Schiele... divorced, I was a better painter by now, this is like last year. It was a call for artists to hang a show in the Narthex (lobby) of a decommissioned Catholic Church, hosting a Shakespearian theater company (https://www.baltimoreshakespearefactory.org) and hosted by Narthex Gallery, it was to hang during the running of the Merry Wives of Windsor, I believe. I made an artists bio, a pro forma prospective, proposal and even had a title for the show of mostly nude figurative works, suggested by art appreciator, friend, and feminist, The Gaze of Man... I went up and measured the space, calculated the number of paintings and met the producer and director of the theater show. It was going to be a themed art show, Shakespeare, and I was going to have to paint several pieces, contacted all the models and got consent for existing works... and was going to paint my own fat self full figure, nude, as Falstaff, complete with antlers... only there was one problem, I was schedule for cancer surgery like the week the show would hang. I blinked, but maybe I will still paint my Schiele as Falstaff. It’s on my list of paintings.
Fast forward a year, 2020... a real duesenberg (Doozy) to be sure. A throw back to the Spanish flu of 1917-18 (think Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco)... a very creative time, Golden even. A coronavirus pandemic. Zoom art workshops. I’ve been painting a lot, learned a lot more about design, composition, color, painting. I have had some breakthroughs. I’ve improved. I’ve had to paint from photos as part of that and discovered Eric Rhodes (Plein Air Magazine, among other things) daily interviews with artists and his streaming production of artists demo’s. He hosts art conferences on Plein Air, Realism and has these juried competitions. The ones where you pay to submit your art and it’s judged. One was for self portraits, https://artistandselfiepaintings.artcall.org so I painted a selfie and entered it, Self Reflection (5x7 oil on canvas), from the makeshift studio on my girlfriend’s porch during lockdown, from an iPad screen... I was going to do it live from the front facing camera, then figured, why not just take a picture... it lasts longer.
Painting is learning how to see - Walter Bartman