Sixteenth Century philosopher Michel de Montaigne claimed that he would rather understand himself than Cicero.
Montaigne begins his famous essay collection with the statement: ‘I desire to be viewed as I appear, without study or artifice, for it is myself I paint’. Self-analysis has been an essential practice of artists across all periods, backgrounds and disciplines. Though not all are as faithful to the facts as Montaigne, what unites many is the image of the painted self-portrait; consider James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dylan Thomas’ parody, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
But why is self-portraiture such a powerful genre? A self-portrait might showcase an artist’s skill or increase their celebrity, but a more profound reason for the genre’s popularity can be found in Montaigne’s initial claim. To privilege understanding of self above understanding of Cicero is to argue that self-knowledge is of paramount importance; the desire to paint oneself can then be aligned with the desire to know oneself. An interesting example of this is Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. Famous for painting himself into his works, here is a rare double self-portrait, in which both David and Goliath are modelled on the artist, contrasting associations which must have prompted self-reflection.
Though an artist may not share the revelations they experience during a self-portrait, the finished work often reveals intimate facets of their character, and herein lies the appeal of self-portraiture for the viewer. To view an artist through the lens by which they view themselves is to become familiar not only with their appearance but with their sensibility. While many portrait painters would challenge Oscar Wilde’s notion that ‘every portrait painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist’, in the case of self-portraiture, the mode of representation is seen to be as direct an expression of self as the content.
Self Portrait with Lonsdale Sweatshirt by Marco Ventura
To coincide with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2018, Mall Galleries has created Me, Myself & I, a capsule selection of self-portraits showcasing work by some of the finest contemporary portrait painters. Among the contributors are Miriam Escofet and Ania Hobson, both shortlisted artists for the prestigious BP Portrait Award 2018. Having begun her career as a landscape and wildlife painter, Hobson was drawn to portraiture by a fascination with the human form. From painting family members, the artist moved to self-portraits, one of which is now shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award.
Miriam Escofet’s Vanitas – Self Portrait is characteristic of the artist’s striking style, which often expresses gothic elements and features symbolic objects. “My paintings arrive at a kind of hyper real expression of the subject matter”, says Escofet; “the likeness and character of the sitter come first, but I am as interested in the work’s spatial and psychological depth”. To discover the works in Me, Myself & I is to gain precious insights into the characters of the artists, and into the historic tradition of self-portraiture.