From the early Renaissance era to the modern art period, self-portraits have remained an essential part of an artist’s oeuvre. Artists create portraits of self, not out of self-obsession, but for the sake of freedom they can’t exercise when commissioned. It is where they experiment and take risks to grow as an artist.
A study of an artist’s self-portrait not only highlights the journey of their artistic evolution – but also gives a glimpse into their mind. It shows not just how they see themselves but also how they perceive everyone and everything around them. Not to mention, they use their portrait to market their skills.
Today, we will talk about brilliant masterpieces that are more than self-portraits. Let’s take a look at the list of 20 beautiful self-portraits by famous artists.
1. Albrecht Dürer – Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight
- Year: 1500
- Dimension: 66 cm x 49 cm
- Medium: Oil on Panel
Painted somewhere around the early 1500s, this is one of the most well-recognized self-portraits in the world. Even those who aren’t much fond of art, and don’t know the artist, must have seen it somewhere. And those who know the artist know that Dürer is one of the finest self-portrait painters of all times.
While Dürer painted other self-portraits, we picked the “Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Eight” for two reasons. Firstly, the painting shows Durer’s mastery in painting himself in the likeness of Jesus. Secondly, Durer beautifully captured a 20-year-old’s journey from a young to mature man. Not the mention, this self-portrait has details we rarely see in the work of his peers. From the fiber of his coat and its fur lining to the hair of his beard and the light in his eyes, everything holds extraordinary detail.
Durer’s notable self-portraits include “Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle” and “Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty-Eight.”
2. Vincent Van Gogh – Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
- Year: 1889
- Dimension: 60 cm x 49 cm
- Medium: Oil Paint
One cannot appreciate Van Gogh’s art without understanding the ordeal he went through, mainly due to his mental illness. This self-portrait depicts the severe decline in his mental health. A year before Van Gogh shot himself, he mutilated his ear allegedly after an argument with his friend. Some people believe that he cut his ear to silence the voices in his head. Just two weeks later, he completed his portrait with a bandaged ear. Some believe it to be a desperate attempt to prove his sanity to avoid ending up in the asylum.
Why would we include such a dark work of art in our list of beautiful self-portraits by famous artists? It is the piercing the reality of pain in every stroke that makes it a masterpiece in its rite. We can go as far as labeling it the most beautiful depiction of emptiness, agony, and desperation. In essence, this one portrait tells the story of the artist’s life – and demise.
3. Frida Kahlo – The Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
- Year: 1940
- Dimension: 47 cm x 61 cm
- Medium: Oil Paint
‘My painting carries with it the message of pain,’ said one of the most prolific female artists of all time. Frida Kahlo painted many self-portraits, each with a different story to tell. However, one of her most well-known works is her Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, a painting that depicts not just her pain but the grace with which she carried it all her life. It’s also one of the finest use of symbolism in modern art.
Aside from the thorn piercing Kahlo’s neck and a dead hummingbird hanging from the thorn, one can see numerous other symbols, including butterflies in her hair and a monkey on her shoulder. Many believe that the monkey, a symbol of evil in Mexican culture, represents her ex-husband Diego Rivera while the butterflies symbolize the happiness she always wanted.
The butterflies are in contrast to the dead hummingbird symbolizing the loss of hope, and the black cat representing bad luck. Tying all the symbols together is Kahlo’s blank gaze acting as a window in her grief over her concurrent divorce and breakup.
4. Parmigianino – Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
- Year: 1524
- Dimension: 24.4 cm (diameter)
- Medium: Oil on convex panel
Parmigianino’s beautiful self-portrait shows the vastness of the artist’s imagination and his ability to draw inspiration from an item as basic as a mirror in a barber’s shop. Fascinated by how he appeared in that convex mirror, Parmigianino decided to capture that reflection.
To make it appear as close to that reflection, Parmigianino opted for a spherical canvas instead of a flat one. He later added a gilded frame to make it exactly like the mirror that inspired this beautiful self-portrait.
It is hard to say how closely the artists captured his features. With immaculate skin, bright eyes, and feminine features, he looks much younger than 21. However, what he captured accurately is the curvature formed by the mirror. For onlookers, it seems as if they are looking in the mirror but staring back is the artist’s reflection instead of their own. As critics put it, it is a beautiful visual conundrum rarely seen in the 1500s.
5. Rembrandt van Rijn – The Prodigal Son in the Brothel
- Year: 1635
- Dimension: 1.61 m x 1.31 m
- Medium: Oil paint
If we have to pick on the famous artists as the master of self-portraits, it would be Rembrandt. With more than 40 portraits of himself, Rembrandt gave self-obsession a whole new meaning. He was such a brilliant artist that every portrait is beautiful in its own way. However, for our most beautiful self-portraits list, we have picked the infamous “Prodigal Son in the Brothel.”
The woman in the painting is Saskia, the artist’s wife. The Prodigal Son is a recurring theme in his paintings, owing to his commitment to Christianity. However, this particular scene has little to do with faith or religion. The painting is famous, mainly because of the cheerful and somewhat comical effect it has. The artist seems to be in a gleeful mood, swinging his flagon of ale. His wife, possibly depicted as a prostitute, appears to be enjoying his display of excitement with a little bit of embarrassment at the same time.
Giving us a glimpse into Rembrandt and Saskia’s blissful married life, it is one of the most lively self-portraits by any artist.
6. Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Self-portrait with a White Hat
- Year: 1910
- Dimension: 42 cm x 33 cm
- Medium: Oil paint
Although known for his painting of busty bathing women, Renoir painted a series of self-portraits depicting various stages of his life and the evolution of his art. The second last of his self-portraits, the “Self-portrait with a White Hat,” is the most famous of all.
Created in the later years of his life, this painting features a technique different from Renoir’s earlier work. The artist used finer brush strokes and dissolving lines. Renoir himself believed that he truly learned to paint at this point in life. That was despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
In contrast to Renoir’s earlier work, this particular painting captures not just his likeness but the emotions from the figure and the surrounding. It is one of the finest post-impressionist self-portraits by a famous artist.
7. Artemisia Gentileschi – The Allegory of Painting
- Year: 1638
- Dimension: 96.5 cm × 73.7 cm
- Medium: Oil paint
In a century where women were considered too simple for science or art, Artemisia Gentileschi emerged as the most skillful artists of the time. Daughter of the famous artist Orazio Lomi Gentileschi, Artemisia brought to baroque the intensity of emotions previously missing. It is something unmistakably evident in her self-portrait called “The Allegory of Painting.”
The artist took inspiration from the book “the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa,” the artists’ handbook, in which the author described the painting as a beautiful dark-haired woman in colored clothes with a chain of gold from her neck. In painting herself with those details, Artemisia presents herself as painting personified. Basically, it’s a painting of painting herself. The sheer brilliance of this concept is an ode to her mastery.
Not to mention, the pose she chose to paint herself in is quite challenging. Her accurate and flawless rendering of such movement makes it one of the most beautiful self-portraits ever created.
8. Gustave Courbet – Le Desespere
- Year: 1845
- Dimension: 45 cm x 55 cm
- Medium: Oil paint
Le Desepere, aka The Desperate Man, is considered one of the best paintings by Gustave Courbet. You will find it to be on almost every list of best self-portraits. No doubt, it is a testimony to Courbet’s masterful strokes and his command over the art. His skillful use of contrast makes it feel like he would jump out of the canvas at any moment. From the details of his clothes and skin to the exaggerated expression, everything about this painting is brilliant and beautiful.
Experts believe that the artist meant to show his inner anxiety and struggle. Desperate to find his style and make his mark, the young artist feels insecure and uncertain about his future. The description fits because the portrait was created around the time when Courbet was hanging between Romanticism and Realism. Art critics put this piece in the latter category as it reveals the vulnerable reality of the artist.
9. Andy Warhol – 1986
- Year: 1986
- Dimension: 269.2 cm x 269.2 cm
- Medium: Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
The father of pop art painted many starlets of his time, but considered himself nothing less of a celebrity. That’s why he created dozens of self-portraits, mostly experimental. Among his iconic works is the series of self-portraits created in 1986. The size of this artwork shows Andy’s obsession with everything larger than life. It is also one of the few self-portraits on a square canvas.
This wasn’t his first experiment with silkscreen ink on canvas but is definitely one of the most popular ones. Created in pop-art style, the image is merely the head floating on a black background. Since it is a series, the same image is created in five different colors, including green, blue, purple, yellow, and red. With no torso or neck attached, the void background, and Andy’s fright wig, these images are haunting. Yet, the style has been copied numerous times by artists around the world.
10. Pablo Picasso – 90 Years Old (June 28, 1972)
- Year: 1972
- Dimension: N/A
- Medium: Crayons
Very few artists have a portfolio as broad as Pablo Picasso does. The artist experimented with different styles over his lifetime and managed to master every one of them. The evolution of his art is apparent in the self-portraits he created every other year. However, one of the most prolific self-portraits he created is part of a series he painted at 90.
This portrait completed on June 28 is the first of four in his last series. While each painting in the series is a masterpiece, this one is the finest example of Picasso’s abstract style he mastered later in his life. What makes it even better is the dread evident in each shape, form, and color in this painting. It may be because Picasso, at the age of 90, was contemplating death. No wonder the series is also called Self-Portrait Facing Death. Only a master can produce such distinctive masterpieces in such a short burst, each depicting a similar dread in vastly different ways.
11. Francis Bacon – Three Studies for a Self-Portrait
- Year: 1980
- Dimension: 37.5 x 31.8cm
- Medium: Oil on Canvas
Francis Bacon’s art usually reflects the unsettling, turbulent thoughts that were slowly consuming him. However, none of his pieces gives a clearer glimpse into the darkest corners of his mind, quite like this self-portrait series. The artist painted this series after the tragic loss of his lover who committed suicide just a few months before Francis painted this. His inner grief and agony are evident in the deliberate distortion of his face and how it appears against the stark background.
While it seems like a distorted version of a person’s face, many believe it to be a realistic depiction of how Bacon’s grieving mind perceived himself. While he painted many self-portraits, he admitted that he sees himself as an ugly person. For this one, he deliberately painted the background so dark that it seems like a shadow is slowly creeping upon him.
12. Edvard Munch –The Night Wanderer
- Year: 1924
- Dimension: 90 cm × 68 cm
- Medium: Oil on Canvas
While most people know Munch for his masterpiece “Scream,” the artist created almost 100 self-portraits in different mediums, including oil, pencil colors, sketches, and engravings. In his own words, it was an effort to examine and study the new man who replaced the old man. “The Night Wanderer,” painted around 20 years before his death, stands out due to its absurdity.
One of the most intriguing yet disturbing aspects of this portrait is the missing eyes and hand. These are two features most studied in a self-portrait. Deliberately removing these elements might be Munch’s way to depict a disconnection from his self. The lonely figure seems isolated from its self. Everything about his painting is confusing and sparks a chain of assumptions in the viewer’s mind.
13. Barkley L. Hendricks – Slick
- Year: 1977
- Dimension: 170 cm × 132cm
- Medium: Oil, acrylic, and magna on linen canvas
Barkley L. Hendricks is a prolific American artist who captured the black American life and culture unlike any other artist of his time. Most of his famous work includes life-size self-portraits, for which he chooses distinct outfits. What makes his work different is that instead of themes prevalent among other artists of color, Hendricks highlighted the harmony of black and white culture in America. One of the finest examples of how simply he achieved that is his famous self-portrait Slick.
In Slick, the artist paints himself in a stylish white suite, something any trendy American would own in the 70s – but he pairs it with his ‘kufi’ cap. It is said that Hendricks painted it in response to Hilton Kramer praising his work as slick, a term with racist undertones. A fitting response that made him the father of the ‘post-black’ art movement.
14. Jan van Eyck – Portrait of a Man
- Year: 1433
- Dimension: 26 cm x 19 cm
- Medium: Oil on panel
Speaking of beautiful self-portrait, we have to talk about this masterpiece by Jan van Eyck. However, it is not so high on the rank because many critics doubt it is a self-portrait. The inscription on the top is a play on Van Eyck’s name, indicating that it is indeed his portrait. The red turban looks beautiful against the dark background, which is why the portrait is also known as “Man in a Red Turban.”
Van Eyck’s portraits and self-portraits also stand out due to the realistic color and texture of the skin he creates. A feat very few artists of his time were able to master. In this particular painting, the detailing of the fur and fabric is another remarkable feature that makes it a self-portrait worthy of this list. The man seems void of emotions or expression – a desirable quality in self-portraits of the time.
15. Anthony van Dyck – Self-Portrait with a Sunflower
- Year: 1633
- Dimension: 170 cm × 132cm
- Medium: Oil on canvas
Some of the most visually appealing self-portraits belong to the baroque era. Many artists, in an attempt to make their paintings more attractive, added another beautiful object in the portrait. Sometimes it was flamboyant attire or a beautiful girl in the background, and sometimes a flower. Following the trend of his time, Anthony Van Dyck painted himself with beautiful sunflower that adds strokes or brightness to the entire painting.
However, the flower in this painting is more than an element of beauty. Historians believe that the sunflower symbolizes his devotion to King Charles. Further proving this theory is the gold chain worn by the artist in the self-portrait. The chain gifted to Van Dyck by the King holds a central position as the artist holds it out for the viewers to behold.
16. Francisco Goya – Self Portrait (1815)
- Year: 1815
- Dimension: 45.8 cm × 35.6 cm
- Medium: Oil on canvas
Known as one of the greatest Spanish artists of the romantic era, Francisco Goya is regarded as the latest in the line of Old Masters and the first of early modern artists. This particular painting remained in his possession until his death, and hence, became one of the most famous self-portraits.
The concentrated expression in his eyes, along with the tilted head, strongly suggests that Francisco has portrayed himself using a mirror placed in front of him. Of countless self-portraits he has created over the span of his life, this particular one was painted when he turned 69 years old. Appearing rather intimate, with the exception that he seems to be on his sickbed, suffering and frail.
Another portrait discovered rather recently seems to similar in general appearance and style. Still, there are minor variations in terms of costume and pose and the expressions on his face that depict a more profound melancholy. The painting was passed to his only son and later presented to the Academy in the year 1829.
17. Egon Schiele – Self-Portrait with Physalis
- Year: 1912
- Dimension: 32.2 cm × 39.8 cm
- Medium: Oil and Body Color On Wood
It was the year 1912, and rather productive one at that for Egon Schiele, when his particular expressionistic style in painting came closer to reality. It was soon after everything changed for Egon as he was falsely accused of kidnapping a girl, for which he was taken into custody. The charges were dropped, but not before the damage had been done to his image as an artist.
You can see the hurt he goes through in his “Self-portrait with Physalis” – one of his final pieces of work before he swerved down a path of self-loathing and disgust. One of his most famous self-portraits was painted when he was a mere 22 years old lad. Several elements within the composition are balanced and arranged in a web of mutual relationships: the lowered and the raised shoulder, the eyes looking in one direction, and his head facing the opposite side. Nothing is left to chance.
18. C. Escher – Hand with Reflecting Sphere
- Year: 1935
- Dimension: 31.8 cm × 21.3 cm
- Medium: Lithograph
As a student, nearly all his grades were dismal. It was only his talent in his drawings where he excelled beyond expectation. Born in 1898, Maurits Cornelia Escher received a lot of encouragement from his friends and teachers, who persuaded him to make a career as a graphic artist.
In this fascinating piece of work done in 1935, titled “Hand with Reflecting Sphere,” Escher’s world appears to be trapped in the reflection of a mirrored sphere. The only hint the viewer of this work has to what is shown inside the sphere is the hand holding it, which merges the reflection and the reality.
The object Escher has chosen for the reflection creates an interesting curvature of the room he sits in. The fine marks and delicate shapes appear to be accurate as much as the viewer can see. Only the plainness of the background gives rise to a feeling of mistrust, as only the reflection is provided to peer into Escher’s world.
19. Lovis Corinth – Self-Portrait with Skeleton
- Year: 1896
- Dimension: 66 cm x 86 cm
- Medium: Oil Paint
Lovis Corinth had made it a habit of his to celebrate each one of his birthdays with a self-portrait, most of which are deserving of attention. As an artist with an excellent sense of humor, irony, and not a care for his appearance, to his reverence, he always manages to give himself a fresh look, often comical and almost always merciless to himself.
“Self-portrait with a Skeleton” is perhaps the most famous work of this iconic artist. Lovis captured his Munich studio with the company of his anatomical display for medical students. As a force of habit, as he purposefully always does, highlight the not-so-flattering visuals of his face – his deep receding hairline and his preloaded double chin. In a glimpse, it makes you feel somewhat sympathetic towards the awkward artist. In the top right corner, you can see the frame of a monogram that is his signature, signed at the age of 38 years.
20. John Patrick Byrne – Self-Portrait in a Flowered Jacket
- Year: 1973
- Dimension: 147 cm × 91cm
- Medium: Oil on Blockboard
A modern artist who combined several of his artistic careers as a theater designer, playwright, and artist to create meaningful work. He was the man behind “The Slab Boys,” which explores the lives of working-class Scotland, and in the 80s, he wrote a cult television series by the name of “Tutti Frutti,” a 6-part drama series.
This self-portrait was painted after his return from California during the 70s, and the influence of hippy culture is quite apparent. In truth, this painting is a tribute to perhaps the best-known outsider of modern art to date: Henri Rousseau, a representative of “naïve” that Byrne admired greatly.
The countless protean self-portraits that the artist has created throughout his career significantly suggest an identity variable if not malleable. Equally known for his writing prowess, Byrne is known to present himself in unique costumes and guises, masks and attitudes, circumstances and moods. The carefree attitude that can be witnessed in his work is not without a tinge of tragedy.