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Thursday, 17 March 2016

Self-portraits through the ages

We take a look at some self-portraits by much-loved artists working in Britain through the ages, including William Hogarth and Vanessa Bell:

Self-portraiture is a richly diverse, enigmatic genre that has particular poignancy in the history of art, documenting the rare moment when the artist enjoys a unique sense of freedom as both subject and creator.

Artists have recreated their own image since the Middle Ages; a time when self scrutiny and personal salvation were of great importance. During the Renaissance, the humanist emphasis on the individual coincided with the elevated status of the artist. The discovery of oil painting allowed artists to develop techniques that revolutionised painting. As an intimate form of self-expression, personal legacy and public self-advertisement, the self-portrait raises complex issues of identity, politics, social status and artistic skill. 

'Self-portrait', Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1685 © The National Gallery, London
Born in Germany and trained as an artist in Amerstam and Italy, Sir Godfrey Kneller later established himself as a leading portrait artist in England. After settling here in 1676, he was introducted to Court circles by the Duke of Monmouth and later appointed as principle painter to the Crown by Charles II. This powerful self-portrait gives us an idea of why his portraits were considered amongst the best produced in Europe at the time. 

'Self-portrait', Allan Ramsay, c.1737-39 © The National Gallery, London
 'He (Allan Ramsay) and Mr Reynolds...our favourite painters, and two of the very best we ever had' - Horace Walpole.

Born in Edinburgh, Allan Ramsay later studied in London, Rome and Naples and was appointed as painter to George III. It is believed that this early self-portrait was produced in Italy where Ramsay completed his artistic training and shows the influence of the Italian baroque. 

Ramsay depicts himself wearing a white neck-band and shirt ruffle made from rich velvet drapery. It is believed that a copy of the portrait was framed as a pendant, painted at the time of Ramsay's marriage to his first wife in 1739. 

'Self-portrait', William Hogarth c. 1757 © The National Gallery, London
In this self-portrait, William Hogarth depicts himself painting Thalia, the Muse of Comedy. Ramsay sits in a large mahogany armchair, wearing an open white shirt, green velvet coat, stockings and brown breeches. He holds a palette knife and brushes and contemplates the white outline of Thalia, who holds a book under her right arm and mask in her left hand. 

'Self-portrait', Vanessa Bell c. 1958. The Charleston Trust © BBC Your Paintings
Vanessa Bell was a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, alongside her husband Clive Bell and sister Virginia Woolf. Bell's early work conformed to the conventional traditions of the New English Art Club, but was later influenced by the first Post-Impressionism exhibition that took place in 1910 and the progressive ideas of Roger Fry, which surfaced in a stripped back, simplified style of painting defined by bold outlines and non-descriptive colour. 

The first Post-Impressionist exhibition included works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisee and Picasso, which gave Bell a 'sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself, which were absolutely overwhelming.'

After the First World War, Bell, similarly to other artists of her generation, returned to a more naturalistic style. Bell maintained a lifelong passion for simplified decorative patterns and colour that originated in the creative collaboration of the Omega Workships. This was later reflected in the interiors of Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse that she shared with her husband, as well as her distinctive book-jacket designs for the Hogarth Press. 

This self-portrait was painted when Bell was nearly 80 and hangs in the garden room at Charleston. Bell's portraits have often been subject to biographical readings that connect them to the death of her sister Virginia and eldest son Julian Bell. However, if we re-contextualise works such as this self-portrait, we see a lively and forceful artist who paints as a challenging act of self-expression.  

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