Every day, countless selfies are posted on the internet, announcing one’s status, connections, and hopes. While some see authenticity in those digital images, the very concept of identity is fluid and open to constant reinvention. Artists think deeply about representation, particularly when they make self-portraits. By depicting themselves, they explore their own identities, linking their eyes to a self, an “I.” With developments in technology, twentieth-century artists have steadily begun to shift away from the mirror. Many have abandoned painterly, sculpted, or drawn surfaces to look through the camera, often choosing to generate mechanical reproductions that confirm their existence through prints, photographs, and video. While their created selves may, or may not, reveal their true character, we can, through slow looking, see something of their activism, self-reflection, or engagement with the history of art. Drawn primarily from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, which holds over 500 self-portraits, Eye to I includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, prints, and digital works. The aim of the exhibition is to provide a background for today’s fascination with self-portraiture and to inspire more self-representations that encourage empathy and understanding. Unless otherwise stated, all works in this exhibition are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
In this drawing, Everett Shinn displays his theatrical personality in muted tones, vivid colors, and a downturned face. Recognizing that a degree of dramatic posturing was expected of an artist, he assumed the role of a brooding romantic and paid tribute to the celebrated actress Julia Marlowe in an inscription.
Edward Hopper was twenty-one when he sketched this quietly confident self-portrait. He is dressed in a jacket and roll-neck sweater: popular in masculine outdoor athletics, especially football and cycling. In part through his choice of clothing, Hopper depicts himself as youthful, unpretentious, and modern. Although two decades would pass before he gained recognition for his oddly mysterious realist painting, this drawing demonstrates a modern sensitivity to medium and self-representation.
This self-portrait gives us a good sense of the drive of Jessie Tarbox Beals, the first woman to work as a news photographer. Beals believed those in her profession needed to have “health and strength, a good news instinct that will tell what picture the editor will want, a fair photographic outfit,” and above all, “the ability to hustle.” She is pictured alongside her 8 x 10 large-format camera and her assistant “Pumpkin,” who is shown carrying a case of glass plate negatives.
Wearing an antique dress, photographer Gertrude Käsebier pictures herself in this self-portrait as a traditional matron. In the world of fine art photography, however, Käsebier was hardly a conservative figure. Refusing to employ the painted backdrops and contrived poses used by many portrait photographers, Käsebier adapted lessons drawn from her study of modern art to craft portraits that were rich in character and psychological insight. Along the way she earned a reputation at the turn of the twentieth century for reimagining the creative possibilities of portrait photography.
In 1906, the year she created this drawing, Minerva Chapman became one of the first women elected to France’s Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts (National Society of Fine Arts). The sensitive self-portrait suggests an air of animated reserve as Chapman firmly asserts her identity as a professional artist. The portrayal recalls a phrase that appears in one of her notebooks from around this time: “Work. Ambition. Perseverance. Determination.”
Lee Simonson, a major force in American scenic design, discovered in his youth what “painters’ and designers’ vision could do to revivify the theater.” This painting shows his mastery of pattern and composition, and the areas of pure, vibrant color reveal his interest in Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and the French contemporary painters known as the Fauves. Upon returning to New York City in 1912 from a stint in Paris, Simonson felt determined to launch his career as a set designer.
In this portrait, Lucy May Stanton presents herself in a forthright, no-nonsense pose, displaying her virtuosity in handling watercolor. She followed the traditional technique of roughening the surface of the ivory so that pigment would adhere to it, but then tilted her work board to move the flow of the washes. In “puddling,” an innovative wet-on-wet technique, she allowed broad pools of color to shift over the surface and then dry, leaving a rich texture.
Francis Picabia was a star of the July/August 1915 issue of the short-lived 291 journal. This issue, unlike any other, comprised five conceptual portrait prints, created with clear dark lines, hand coloring, and puzzling inscriptions. Called “mechanomorphs,” the subjects appear to be mechanical objects but were meant to represent specific individuals. Picabia depicted himself as an upright car horn, in the company of four similarly abstracted friends. According to scholar Hannah Wong, the fold-out publication, when engaged by a viewer and folded or refolded, puts these subjects into dialogue with each other. Ultimately, Picabia presents himself as a leader of modern art and the portraits as a playful way to engage art’s audiences.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Thomas Hart Benton was among many young painters who embraced abstraction. He soon rejected that brand of modernism, however, and emerged in the 1920s as a leader of the regionalist school of realism, whose primary concern was the portrayal of local life and history in America. Best known for his panoramic murals, he brought to his works a boldness of composition that led one critic to describe him as “the most ... vigorous and virile of our painters.”
Caricaturist Ralph Barton garnered fame and fortune in the 1920s, spoofing the urban “smart set” with an infectious wit and an elegant, calligraphic line. In this haunting self-portrait, however, the artist reveals what he usually took pains to conceal: the turmoil of the psyche. Inscribed “with apologies to Greco and God,” he suggests the tormented subjects of El Greco’s portraits and his own mental anguish. Despite his own distress, he helped invent a new type of stylish, lighthearted celebrity caricature that refrained from exposing weaknesses. “It is not the caricaturist’s job to be penetrating,” he insisted. “It is his job to put down the figure a man cuts before his fellows in his attempt to conceal the writhings of his soul.”
Clad in trousers, a turtleneck, and a smock, Elaine de Kooning appears to be seated in her studio, working in a sketchbook. She confronts the viewer directly, a hallmark of self-portraits, but nonetheless references other genres. The composition includes a number of still-life objects that reflect her years of intense tutorials with her husband Willem de Kooning; he compelled her to look at objects and the spaces between them to develop her sense of pictorial organization. As she recalled, “everything was a matter of tension between objects or edges and space.”
“I fought racism with my art,” Hayward Oubre asserted. Light-skinned, Oubre could have “passed” for white, but he proudly refused to do so. In this self-portrait, Oubre stressed the tan tone of his skin by using buff paper and leaving a thin coating of ink on the plate. He exaggerated the size of his eyes but avoided the gaze of the viewer, perhaps suggesting his alienation. Lines underneath the eyes evoke premature sags and possibly point to the stress of his having lived in segregated campus housing.
James A. Porter created the foundation for the field of African American art history and championed African American artists, including those from the Caribbean. His influential book Modern Negro Art (1943) was the first to place the contributions of African American artists in the context of the history of modernism, and Porter’s own art was exhibited at major institutions, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Here, he presents himself in his studio in front of an image of Howard Hall, one of the oldest buildings on Howard’s campus where he served as chair of the art department and director of the art gallery.
An influential and openly gay artist during the AIDS era, Martin Wong employed various mediums and styles and was an avid collector of found objects from popular and street culture, which he incorporated into his formal works. Wong frequently collaborated with Miguel Piñero, a poet and one of the leading voices of the Nuyorican movement, which promoted Puerto Rican culture in New York City in the 1960's. This drawing from that period is remarkable, not only for its fine draftsmanship but also for its ability to telegraph the bohemian, louche era—a time when AIDS cut short the lives of so many individuals, including Wong’s.
In this charming composition, Herman Maril represents himself seated in a rocking chair without articulated facial features. Meanwhile, the still life on the red table in the foreground pops against the expanse of gray that unifies the three-part composition, dominating the canvas and suggesting that the act of painting is the subject. Maril describes his art, which merges figuration and abstraction, as an exploration of space and color: “My preoccupation in painting has always been space. . . I like to deal with big open spaces. And color. Color and space is painting.”
Musician, writer, and artist Patti Smith is known for her paradigm-shifting creativity. In this raw, edgy self-portrait drawn in 1974, Smith depicts herself in a colorful top, staring out at the viewer with a punk-rock attitude. The inscription reads: “All the things he gave me,” referring to her relationship in the early 1970s with Blue Öyster Cult band member Allen Lanier. Smith describes the work with her characteristic emphatic prose and sensitivity: “The felt Berber hat. A tiny platinum teardrop necklace. An ivory camel. … Though a mere sketch it was done with great care in recognition to the giver.”
Keeping alive the tradition of figuration, even in the midst of the vogue for abstraction, California artist Don Bachardy mastered a particular form of portrayal few can imitate: the large-scale, closely observed life portrait drawn with graphite lines or light ink and graphite washes. Bachardy relishes the intense, sometimes uncomfortable, collaboration that results from prolonged staring at a subject and considers each sitting a portrait in time, recording the mood of the moment. While he does not have that interaction in his self-portraits, he does apply the same standard of intense observation to his own features.
Wearing dark glasses and a Mao Zedong suit, Tseng Kwong Chi traveled worldwide to create his evocative series East Meets West, where he invented the persona of a Chinese “Ambiguous Ambassador” to explore tourist photography and critically assess political tensions of the 1970s and 1980s. While mocking the period’s U.S.-China relations, Tseng’s images also highlight his ability to move freely across borders, a right that was denied to many Chinese. In this image, he jumps ecstatically before the Brooklyn Bridge, creating a photograph that is both a tongue-in-cheek and thoughtful consideration of the role of a historic site, tourism, and a foreign traveler’s body in the landscape. We also catch a glimpse of the shutter release and cord attached to the camera, the technology that made this self-portrait possible.
Although surrounded in New York City by the Abstract Expressionists, Lois Dodd created a unique style of realism. Her maxim, “The more you look, the more you see,” provides a guide to viewing this self-portrait, where she peers through oversized glasses toward the viewer, with a questioning gaze. A black hat frames her wild hair, giving her an eccentric appearance, while the lavender, green, orange, and yellow tones shadowing her face resemble the colors from nature seen in her famous landscapes.
A painter of Native American subject matter in the 1960s and 1970s, Fritz Scholder developed an approach that became known as Indian Pop. This is his last self-portrait, made in 2003 when he was battling complications brought on by diabetes. The dark, moody canvas features the artist boldly facing the viewer as he leans on his cane. His eyes are covered by tinted glasses, and the tubes from his oxygen tank are visibly running from his nose to the ambiguously shadowy floor, which has been described as a reference to the “shadow of death.” Critics, who often cite this painting as a particularly important self-portrait, also point to the influence of Francis Bacon, an artist Scholder deeply admired.
Burton Silverman has created many self-portraits over his lifetime as a painter of figures and landscapes. This sketch was made for a larger painting and was described by the artist as being “executed within a few years of my heart attack, in the aftermath of which I experienced a new sense of myself as a survivor. With this heightened awareness came a special need to strip to the waist in painting myself as if my essential selfhood was now more than just head and shoulders. This painting perhaps also ‘celebrates’ my survival, both as a human being and as an artist. The tools of my lifelong career are represented by the brushes in my right hand and the camera in the other.”
As an artist, Roger Shimomura has focused particular attention on the experiences of Asian Americans and the challenges of being “different” in America. In this take on Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, Shimomura presents himself in the guise of America’s Founding Father, but he replaces George Washington’s colonial troops with samurai warriors, and he remakes the body of water they cross to resemble San Francisco Harbor with Angel Island (the processing center for Asian immigrants) in the background. The work also echoes the compositional format of a Katsushika Hokusai wood-block print.
As a painter, printmaker, and performance artist, Roger Shimomura creates self-portraits as a way to investigate his own identity vis-à-vis popular imagery. Here, he depicts himself as Superman, flying through the air. Noting that his image interrogates “whether Superman must be Caucasian to be complete,” he also explains that the term "buddhahead" was a World War II term used by the Japanese American soldiers among themselves.”
Patricia Cronin created this self-portrait with her then partner, now wife, the pioneering feminist artist Deborah Kass. Conceived in the tradition of nineteenth-century funerary sculptures, Memorial to a Marriage presents two influential feminist artists and life partners in an eternal embrace. As a powerful commentary on gender, sexuality, and marriage, it tells both a transcendent story and one that is historically and culturally significant. The work was made a decade before Cronin and Kass were granted the right to marry in their home state of New York.
Shahzia Sikander often explores the traditions of Indo-Persian miniature painting, bringing the formal elements of that discipline into the depiction of her own identity as a Muslim American. In reinvigorating the traditional, Sikander has turned to video art and digital animation. Anchored by beautifully etched likenesses that are bathed in the colors of a sunrise, this image references the historical Miraj paintings of the visionary night journey of Prophet Muhammad. As self-portraits, her works reveal powerful, complex, and nuanced insights into Muslim American identity.
Enrique Chagoya uses his art for activist causes and also uses seemingly cartoonish or naïve imagery as an entryway for discussions of complex cultural and geopolitical issues. This work, entitled Aliens Sans Frontières (Aliens without borders), includes six self-portraits of the artist. Each draws on a pernicious stereotype of a certain ethnicity, each of which Chagoya discovered in his ancestry after having his DNA analyzed. The work is a highly technical, accomplished print—graphic in its geometric patterning, gritty in its evocation of street graffiti, and subversive in its crisscrossing of gender and class lines.
Amalia Soto found her first following through a Tumblr account, with the persona of Molly Soda. It is there that she comments on the fluidity of identity and examines a teenage girl aesthetic as the artist creates this persona.
Often set in a pink-themed bedroom, Molly Soda reveals some of the fictions created on internet platforms—where we may think we can find authenticity. She acknowledges, “I feel like a lot of the work I make ends up being kind of sad or dark because that’s how the internet feels . . . I love the internet, and I have grown to care about it so much—but it’s a complicated relationship.” Who’s Sorry Now is a carefully constructed, multiple self-portrait, enacting complex emotions in a private space made public.