Self-portrait in white dress is of particular importance in the artist’s oeuvre, among the countless other self-portraits. Malczewski presents the top half of his body, dressed in a white, women’s blouse with buffy sleeves and a tied collar decorated with a gold clasp and a white, fancy beret with a red cap band tightly touching the temple. Leather, wide, highlander belt, applied to a multicolored woven belt wrap around the hips. The ceremonial pose, with the right hand – a knight’s gesture – supported on the hip, the left hand presenting a brush as an attribute of the painter’s vocation, gives the portrait an official character, though not devoid of elements of the grotesque.
Malczewski’s self-portraits aroused a particular irritation of his contemporary critics, accusing the artist of excessive pride and a tendency to “costume making”. The painting, like all symbolic works, is not subject to unambiguous interpretation; one can only try to read its meaning. The painting, considered against the background of other portraits of the artist, in which he presented himself in various incarnations, draws attention with a combination of male and female, folk and noble, and quite fancy elements of the costume, as well as with the metaphors of the colors used. The combination of contradicting features of clothing, treated as a material sign of personality, may mean the artist’s sense of achievement in the development of his own androgynous spirit of completeness. The idea of androgyne as an original, lost human figure and a necessary goal of mankind’s aspirations, derived from gnosticism, was one of the basic problems of literary and artistic symbolism. Earlier it was present in romantic mysticism, of which Malczewski was an heir and follower. According to the beliefs of romantics and symbolists, artists and poets, as people crossing the intellectual and spiritual horizons of the epoch, striving for beauty and ideal, always felt more strongly the incompleteness of human nature and the need to regain lost perfection. As higher spirits they were closer to achieving the ideal.
In Malczewski’s work, the symbolic integration of personality is also emphasized by a set of colors. White, dominating in the painting, as a painterly equivalent of divine light, metaphors perfection, but it is also combined with the female element. On the other hand, patches of amaranth red may be a sign of the male element, and at the same time an expression of suffering, which always accompanies the role of the genius artist.
The ceremonial atmosphere of the portrait is disturbed by a beret resembling a chef’s hat – an element of self-irony deliberately introduced by Malczewski, probably derived from romanticism. At that time, it was an artistic doctrine, shaped on the basis of Friedrich Schlegel’s philosophy. Used mainly in literature, it functioned as a stylistic means of conducting a Socratic, ironic dialogue with the viewer, serving – as Włodzimierz Szturc, a researcher of this phenomenon, writes – to emphasize the creationist aspect of the work and to give its creator “an authentically divine and truly free creative attitude”.