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As They Saw Themselves

April 2024
5min read

The man who paints his own likeness in a sense turns inside out the famous line of Robert Burns. He is given the gift to show others how he sees himself. This is a revelation of no small interest or importance. We see the man as he idealizes, romanticizes, or possibly disguises himself. And we see him in the mirror of his times. Every artist is to some extent a prisoner of the fashion, the aesthetics, and the painting idiom of his age. So in addition to revealing the appearance and personality, the style and technique, of the individual artist, a self-portrait gives us insight into its era and illuminates aspects of America’s social and cultural history with the settings and accouterments that embellish it.

Consider, for example, the self-portrait of “Captain” Thomas Smith, opposite, a gentleman of shadowy history, believed to have been a mariner who came to Boston from Bermuda about 1650. We do not know anything about the naval engagement at the upper left of the canvas. We do know that Smith painted this portrait of himself and that this vigorous image is an important document not only for Thomas Smith but for the history of American art as well. The likenesses of the first decades of New England portraiture after 1620 showed dependence upon the flat and decorative style of Tudor England. This almost medieval style had lingered on in the rural areas of England and, transplanted with the first colonists, had enjoyed its last flowering in New England. Smith’s portrait, on the other hand, is conceived in terms of three-dimensional forms in space and indicates knowledge of continental baroque styles. The difference between this portrait and its New England predecessors is the difference between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

Group portraits frequently reveal even more of time and place, of fashion and circumstance, than the familiar bust portrait form. When the artist puts himself in the assembled company, he has a natural interest in surrounding the group with elegant furnishings, which bring with them a wealth of social and cultural detail.

The Philadelphian Matthew Pratt painted The American School (overleaf) almost a hundred years after Thomas Smith’s likeness. His work—with its Chippendale furniture and exquisite dress—not only shows us something of social life in the prospering colonies but also demonstrates how the colonial portrait form had altered with the application of a little London polish. The drawing is precise but larger and freer than that of the limners who painted America’s earliest portraits. Pratt was the first native American artist to study abroad and bring his skills back to his native country.


George Hollingsworth’s family picture (pages 72-73) is equally the portrait of an era, a locale, and a family, as well as a key to the fashions of a place and time: Boston, about 1840. The grave demeanors and the air of solid and sober prosperity in the artist’s detailed presentation illustrate both the character and the tastes of this New England family, dominated by father Mark, “a man of quiet strength whose Quaker training did not encourage the easy unfurling of emotions,” and mother Waitstill, a woman of wit and spirit who is said to have remarked in her later years “Say what you please, I call life a running fight.”

The bust self-portrait generally does not convey as much information as the group portrait, nor is its historical context so explicitly stated. The portrait fashion of an era, however, is immediately apparent, and we can tell a great deal about the appearance and personality of the subject. For instance, Washington Allston (page 74), considered America’s first major romantic artist, was a painter of landscape reveries based upon myth and history. His portraits were executed mainly for practice or for personal mementos. Nevertheless they reveal the personality—kind and sensitive, urbane and modest—that inspired Allston’s friends to tributes of exceptional eloquence.

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.”

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