Profiling Portraits: The Art of the Self-Portrait

In the first entry in this occasional series, Profiling Portraits, we examined occupational portraits, a type of portrait designed to tell the viewer a specific fact about the sitter: their occupation. We will now look at another type of portrait, one which is very popular today, thanks to the advent of smartphones with cameras: self-portraits, commonly referred to as selfies. However, self-portraits have been around for hundreds of years, in many formats, not just photography. The creator of a self-portrait has control over many aspects of the image, and therefore can convey information through the portrait beyond simple appearance. The portrait can be serious or whimsical; it can soften features or exaggerate them. The artist can convey occupation through tools of their trade or even impart a message about their politics or opinions.

Thanks to the vast scope of the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division, we can explore many examples of self-portraits, looking at graphic media such as etchings, engravings and lithographic portraits as well as hand-drawn images, and of course, photographs.

Self-portraits can be occupational portraits as well. On the left, Gilbert Stuart, most famous for his iconic portrait of George Washington, makes a sketch of himself sketching and on the right, artist George Bellows shows himself drawing on a lithographic stone.

[Gilbert Stuart, self-portrait, half-length, right profile, holding pencil or brush, drawing] Ink and wash drawing by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1783. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.22654

[Gilbert Stuart, self-portrait, half-length, right profile, holding pencil or brush, drawing] Ink and wash drawing by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1783. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.22654

Self-portrait. Lithograph by George Bellows, 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3m00107

Self-portrait. Lithograph by George Bellows, 1921. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3m00107

This charming two-page spread for the August 1914 issue of Puck magazine travels the world with its humorous impressions, and the artist himself, Henry Mayer (more commonly known as Hy Mayer) is at the center, writing out postcards.

Travel impressions. Color offset print by Henry (Hy) Mayer. Published in Puck, v. 76, no. 1956 (1914 August 29). //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.28081

Travel impressions. Color offset print by Henry (Hy) Mayer. Published in Puck, v. 76, no. 1956 (1914 August 29). //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.28081

Artist John Rubens Smith took his self-portrait a bit farther, including his wife and six children, plus all of their artistic efforts in the watercolor below:

[Family group - Smith, his wife and six children pointing at examples of their work]. Drawing by John Rubens Smith, between 1809 and 1849. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32026

[Family group – Smith, his wife and six children pointing at examples of their work]. Drawing by John Rubens Smith, between 1809 and 1849. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.32026

Mirrors offer a wonderful opportunity for self-portraits for photographers, as seen in the two examples below, and a chance to display the camera being used as well.

Lititz, Pennsylvania. Self-portrait at a public sale. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d23557

Lititz, Pennsylvania. Self-portrait at a public sale. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942 Nov. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d23557

Self portrait of photographer Carol M. Highsmith, via a broken mirror that she photographed during the Willard Hotel restoration. Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 1990. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.16608

Self portrait of photographer Carol M. Highsmith, via a broken mirror that she photographed during the Willard Hotel restoration. Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 1990. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.16608

Cartoonists and caricaturists sometimes turned their pens or pencils on themselves, as Thomas Nast demonstrates. On the left, we have Nast sharpening his pencil on a December 1876  cover of Harper’s Weekly, as he prepares to comment on the issues of the day with razor-sharp pencil – and wit. On the right, Nast shares a rather self-effacing look at his first meeting with publisher Frank Leslie, where Nast appears to be drawing a strong contrast between his appearance and Leslie’s.

No rest for the wicked - sentenced to hard labor. Wood engraving by Thomas Nast. Published in Harper's Weekly, v. 20, 1876 December 2. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b17823

No rest for the wicked – sentenced to hard labor. Wood engraving by Thomas Nast. Published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 20, 1876 December 2. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b17823

T. Nast & Frank Leslie. Drawing by Thomas Nast, between 1860 and 1902. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cai.2a13967

T. Nast & Frank Leslie. Drawing by Thomas Nast, between 1860 and 1902. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cai.2a13967

And of course, I can’t leave the topic of self-portraits without sharing the earliest known American self-portrait photograph, taken just a few months after Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype. Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia took this self-portrait in October or November 1839:

[Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo]. Daguerreotype by Robert Cornelius, 1839 [Oct. or Nov.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40464

[Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo]. Daguerreotype by Robert Cornelius, 1839 [Oct. or Nov.] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40464

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One Comment

  1. Tom Bober
    January 24, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    Wonderful post! Besides the provided links, which are also helpful, are there any tips in searching for self-portraits through the Library’s site?

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