Extracted from Artsy | Julia Fiore
From the 15th century to our current day, the Renaissance maxim holds true: “Every painter paints himself.” Beyond straightforward self-portraits, artists through the ages have left special signatures on their canvases, covertly inserting their own visages into their works in unusual and inventive ways.
This sense of self-importance for the artist arose in the Renaissance with humanist values that prized individualism and creativity. During that era, two trends for hidden self-portraits emerged in Europe. In Italy, artists tended to include their portraits on the right side of paintings or altarpieces, with their eyes looking knowingly out at the viewer. Northern Renaissance artists, however, liked to toy with dense and precise symbolism that showed off their technical skills. The self-portraits they worked into their oil paintings are usually found distorted in reflective surfaces, like mirrors.
The traditions begun in this artistic golden age remained cogent through the modern era and have persisted to this day. Here, we spot eight self-portraits artists concealed in some of their most famous works.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434
One of the most enigmatic paintings in Western art history is also one of the most fun to look at. Jan van Eyck’s sumptuous wedding portrait revels in painstakingly rendered tokens of wealth and other symbolic details.
Much has been made of the small convex mirror on the wall behind the newlyweds, which shows two additional figures entering the room. The bridegroom raises his arm in an apparent greeting, a gesture that is returned by one of the men in the mirror. Immediately above it is Van Eyck’s flowery signature: “Jan van Eyck was here.” Does the writing suggest that the mirror men are the artist and his assistant visiting his subjects? It’s one of art history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509–11
Raphael’s famous fresco, painted on the wall of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, is considered a masterpiece of Classicism. The scene is a highly ordered paean to philosophy. Scores of revered ancient thinkers—from Pythagoras to Ptolemy—populate a vaulted marble hall with columns and coffered ceilings.
The fresco is a veritable who’s who of Renaissance intellectualism, and Raphael conflated his own era with the vaunted past. According to
may be the face of Heraclitus. The artist couldn’t resist including his own face in the mix: Raphael’s curious face peeks out from behind the arch on the far right of the fresco, beside Ptolemy and Zoroaster.
Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, ca. 1536–41
It’s common knowledge that Michelangelo loathed the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican. In a poem written for a friend in 1509, the tempestuous artist griped about the long hours laying on his back: “My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!”
Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609–10
Before his untimely death at age 38, Caravaggio painted himself in many guises, most frequently as the Greek god of wine, Bacchus. In the last year of his life, he decided to include a self-portrait in a depiction of the victorious David proffering Goliath’s severed head—one of several versions Caravaggio made of the biblical story. This iteration offers an unexpected level of emotional nuance to a usually gory, black-and-white tale of “might vs. right.”
Here, Caravaggio is not the youthful, good-looking David, but the defeated Goliath, his slack-jaw mouth confirming his slaughter. Instead of a look of satisfied victory on his face, David appears pensive and a bit mournful, perhaps even regretful, as he gazes at his prize. Scholars have surmised that the model for the young hero was
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, ca. 1615
Dutch still lifes seem straightforward, but often suggest complex meditations on mortality. While the technical difficulty of the genre and its intellectual conceits might have presented a barrier to access for female artists, women in the 17th century thrived in the genre. Clara Peeters was among the most talented still-life artists of her day.
Many Dutch artists of the era painted lavish arrangements with oysters, mince pies, and imported fruits and peppercorns on silver and gold plates, but Peeters favored humble displays of native dairy products like cheese and butter with peasant bread. Yet she couldn’t resist showing off her painting chops in one still life featuring an array of cheeses, almonds, and elegantly twisted pretzels. In the reflection of the ceramic goblet’s pewter lid, Peeters carefully rendered her self-portrait, accurately distorted by the curve of the object. In lieu of a signature, the artist “carved” her name into the silver butter knife.
Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I and the Crowning of the Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804, 1806–07
The French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David is an interesting figure in the history of revolutionary France. Despite his role in overthrowing the monarchy, after the war, David cannily pledged allegiance to Napoleon, becoming the emperor’s royal painter and master propagandist.
David himself sits in the elevated theater box in the center of the composition, sketching the scene amid the velvet-, fur-, and satin-clad members of the imperial family and other aristocrats. In reality, the artist was present at the actual coronation ceremony at Notre-Dame. His inclusion in the painted version of events shows the artist’s allegiance to the crown, and nods to his undeniable tour-de-force artistic achievement.
Paul Gauguin, The Little One Is Dreaming, Étude, 1881
It wasn’t unusual for modern and Impressionist artists to include themselves in their paintings; they often inhabited their own scenes of Parisian cafés, bars, and parks. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, to name one example, depicted himself in the background of Au Moulin Rouge (1892–95), one of his favorite haunts.
Nicole Eisenman, Swimmers in the Lap Lane, 1995
In crowded paintings of beer gardens and house parties that remix art-historical styles, Nicole Eisenman resurrects the sociable leisure scenes favored by modern artists of the 19th and 20th centuries for the contemporary age.