- Historic Sites
As They Saw Themselves
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
George Caleb Bingham (page 74) was a far cry from Easterners like Allston who had the benefit of European training. He was just beginning his career as a backwoods portraitist along the banks of the Missouri and the Mississippi when he painted his self-portrait at the age of twentyfour. The handling exhibits a linear clarity typical of the artist lacking professional training. There is, as well, a generous hint of the rocky, high-principled steadfastness that would eventually send this painter of Missouri boatmen and backwoods American politics into the Missouri state legislature as a fiery antislavery man.
The reasons behind a self-portrait can be as interesting as the work itself. For some artists—Rembrandt, for example—the self-portrait has a strong moral value; it is a self-examination and a self-confrontation. This tradition runs throughout the canvases assembled here. The selfportrait can also be a mask, indicating what the artist would like to be. There is some of this in the portrait of Cecilia Beaux (page 76), a distinguished and honored artist who was acclaimed by many during her lifetime as the greatest American woman painter. She was an attractive woman, but she never appears so radiantly beautiful in other portraits as she does in her own.
Emmanuel Leutze achieved great success and a glowing reputation in Europe, where he studied between 1840 and 1859. His fame preceded his return to America, and the creator of the famous Washington Crossing the Delaware arrived in New York City a national figure. In his selfportrait (page 76) the artist appears to be appraising him- self coolly, evenly, with a hint of defiance. Leutze may well have concealed his lively personality because the portrait was intended as a public advertisement of his skills, and levity was the wrong note for such a purpose.
On the other hand Henry Inman (page 76) painted his self-portrait for a lesson. Inman’s portraits usually exhibited a smoothly finished technique in keeping with the contemporary fashion he satisfied so well. The vitality here is explained by the special reason for its execution: it was painted in one brief sitting to show three young artists how he worked. One might add that a hat, and the angle at which a man wears it, tells us something about a man’s romantic image of himself.
In addition to the reasons already considered for a selfportrait, the artist will frequently go through the pleasant sentimental exercise of placing himself in the setting of some beloved or personally significant place, experience, or episode. Observe, for instance, the choice of Benjamin West (page 79), the first native American to study art abroad, who recorded himself in a long series of selfportraits ranging from ages eighteen to eighty-one. Here he shows himself painting his wife, Betsy, his childhood sweetheart, forty-two years after he had married her.
The scientist-inventor-author-painter-educator-agriculturist Charles Willson Peale, one of the most widely talented renaissance men of revolutionary and Federal America and the most assiduous self-portraitist of them all, has memorialized two loves in this, his last self-portrait (page 78). He has represented himself as a naturalist, engaged in a favorite pursuit—lecturing—and on a favorite subject—the great mastodon unearthed in upstate New York and reconstructed in his museum.
William Page did not share the modesty for which Peale was known; he took himself as seriously as the latter did his science. He has given his work (page 78) the air of a royal state portrait, and the accessories of his profession are as prominently and proudly displayed as any orb or scepter. The effect could not be in greater contrast to the casual air of Thomas Hovenden’s self-portrait, opposite, painted while the artist was sampling la vie bohême in Paris. The artist, leaning back lazily with an air of nonchalance that belies his exacting character and methods, rests his violin as he contemplates the latest product on his easel.
Whatever the reasons for its execution, a self-portrait is challenging, informative, and delightful. Anyone who has looked through these pages can easily understand why Horace Walpole wrote: “I prefer portraits really interesting not only to landscape painting, but to history … a real portrait, we know, is truth itself; and it calls up so many collateral ideas as to fill an intelligent mind more than any other species.”