When the artist isn't sure quite what to work on today, there's always a still life -- or a self-portrait. Some people assume the self-portrait is an exercise in narcissism. Perhaps for some artists, it is. Strange, then, that so many self-portraits are not particularly flattering to the subject. Non-artists misunderstand the purpose. Most artists do not intend to be grandiose -- particularly true, the older we get. The bravura self-portrait is a subject best left to the younger artist. Let's look at three different self-portraits from art history.
Rembrandt scrutinizes his face carefully. We see the intent gaze of the artist, exploring the features and the volume of his face. Rembrandt painted many self-portraits thruout his life, from youth to old age. Google them -- it's like a fast forward thru life. We see how the years both take a toll, and at the same time give wisdom.
Van Gogh's artistic career lasted a short ten years, yet he left many self-portraits. In so many, his gaze is sharp, intensely focused. Here we see him doing what he does best -- painting.
We find one of art history's oddest self-portraits at the Sistine Chapel -- Michelangelo's mural of The Last Judgment. Not as familiar to the layman as the ceiling of the Sistine, which isn't surprising. Such an uncomfortable subject! Some people heading for Paradise, some for Hell. In this detail, Saint Bartholomew, traditionally martyred by being flayed alive, holds the instrument of his death, a knife, in one hand and his own flayed skin in the other. The slack, boneless face hanging from that skin is recognizable as Michelangelo himself. There's no mistaking that nose! What on earth! Older now than when he painted the ceiling, so much of his youthful braggadocio dissipated, he offers us his empty shell. He expressed his anguished soul so well in his poetry. One of Italy's greatest artists, he also became one of its most important poets. Here, one line expresses so much: "Ma che poss'io, Signor, s'a me non vieni, coll'usata ineffabil cortesia?" Which, in my clumsy translation, means: "But, Lord, what can I do, if You do not come to me with your undescribable kindness of old?"
So, I will close with my most recent self-portrait. I can take a knock for not addressing every wrinkle, I'll admit. But, you see the intent gaze, in this case looking downward, when of course I actually was looking right into my eyes. By taking my gaze down, I am not invading the viewer's space. I am purposely non-threatening. Perhaps the gaze is inward, instead. The self-portrait as metaphor for self-examination.