Student Resource

Self-Image Exam Help

Explore how artists have represented themselves, and others, using portraiture

Ron Mueck, ‘Ghost’ 1998
Ron Mueck
Ghost 1998
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© Ron Mueck
Sir Stanley Spencer, ‘Self-Portrait’ 1959
Sir Stanley Spencer
Self-Portrait 1959
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© Estate of Stanley Spencer. All Rights Reserved 2019 / Bridgeman Images
Marcus Gheeraerts II, ‘Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington’ 1592
Marcus Gheeraerts II
Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington 1592
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Sarah Lucas, ‘Self Portrait with Skull’ 1997
Sarah Lucas
Self Portrait with Skull 1997
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© Sarah Lucas
Peter Blake, ‘Self-Portrait with Badges’ 1961
Peter Blake
Self-Portrait with Badges 1961
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© Peter Blake 2019. All rights reserved, DACS
Francis Bacon, ‘Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne’ 1966
Francis Bacon
Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne 1966
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© Estate of Francis Bacon
Cindy Sherman, ‘Untitled A’ 1975
Cindy Sherman
Untitled A 1975
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© Cindy Sherman
Gillian Wearing CBE, ‘‘I have been certified as mildly insane!’’ 1992–3
Gillian Wearing CBE
‘I have been certified as mildly insane!’ 1992–3
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© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London
Jason Evans, stylist Simon Foxton, ‘[no title]’ 1991
Jason Evans, stylist Simon Foxton
[no title] 1991
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© Jason Evans

Self-image is the conception of oneself or a sense of one’s worth. But what defines a good and a bad self-image? Do adults and children have different kinds of self-image? Is it possible for an artist to represent the self-image of their sitter?

From youth to old age

Ron Mueck, ‘Ghost’ 1998
Ron Mueck
Ghost 1998
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© Ron Mueck

We all change as we age, and with that our image of ourselves may also shift and alter. Growing up can mean a period of physical and emotional development. Adolescence can often be an awkward phase for a teenager’s self-image. Growing up can mean a period of physical and emotional development. Ron Mueck’s Ghost 1998 is a sculpture of a young girl in a bathing suit. Her limbs are very long and her head appears the wrong size compared to the rest of her body. This image reflects the uneasiness of an adolescent.

Age often impacts on a person’s self-image. John Coplans Self-Portrait (Hands Spread on Knees), 1985, focuses on details of the artist’s body, celebrating his wrinkles and lines. The artist clearly isn’t afraid to present his ageing body.

Does people’s self-image change or improve as they get older? Sir Stanley Spencer’s self-portraits from 1914 and 1959 show the artist in his youth and then shortly before his death. The paintings are an interesting comparison between strength and beauty associated with youth, and old age.

John Coplans, ‘Self-Portrait (Hands Spread on Knees)’ 1985
John Coplans
Self-Portrait (Hands Spread on Knees) 1985
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© The estate of John Coplans

In the public eye

Andy Warhol, ‘[no title]’ 1967
Andy Warhol
[no title] 1967
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© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
Andy Warhol, ‘[no title]’ 1967
Andy Warhol
[no title] 1967
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© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
Andy Warhol, ‘[no title]’ 1967
Andy Warhol
[no title] 1967
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© 2019 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Celebrities and royalty often want total control over their public self-image. Is it ever possible to reveal the true self-image of someone who’s in the public eye? Andy Warhol’s Marilyn series explores the self-image of an actress and celebrity Marilyn Monroe. She was stereotyped as a ‘dumb blonde’ in film roles she played and by the public. Richard Hamilton's My Marilyn uses photographs of the actress Marilyn Monroe that she has marked to demonstrate her approval or disapproval. Hamilton described:

Marilyn Monroe demanded that the results of photographic sessions be submitted to her for vetting before publication. She made indications, brutally and beautifully in conflict with the image, on proofs and transparencies to give approval or reject; or suggestions for retouching that might make them acceptable.

Richard Hamilton, ‘My Marilyn’ 1965
Richard Hamilton
My Marilyn 1965
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© The estate of Richard Hamilton

Look at Marcus Gheeraerts II’s portrait of Lady Harington,1592. We see an Elizabethan lady dressed in finery holding an elegant string of pearls. Her status is clear in this detailed painting. She has the ideal self-image for someone from the Elizabethan upper class.

Marcus Gheeraerts II, ‘Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington’ 1592
Marcus Gheeraerts II
Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington 1592
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attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts II, ‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’ c.1595
attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts II
Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1595
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Do artists have the power to undermine or even ruin the self-image of famous people? Jim Dine’s Drag – Johnson and Mao1967, shows two famous political figures with make-up painted onto their faces by the artist. This sabotages their status as powerful world leaders.

Jim Dine, ‘Drag - Johnson and Mao’ 1967
Jim Dine
Drag - Johnson and Mao 1967
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© Jim Dine

Self reflection

Tracey Emin, ‘Sad Shower in New York’ 1995
Tracey Emin
Sad Shower in New York 1995
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© Tracey Emin

Some artists have explored the more negative, darker aspects of their self-image. Tracey Emin’s art is particularly self-reflective. Works like Sad Shower in New York 1995, reveal traumas and difficult times that the artist has encountered in her life. Sarah Lucas’s Portrait with Skull 1997, turns the traditional idea of women in art, into something aggressive and masculine.

Sarah Lucas, ‘Self Portrait with Skull’ 1997
Sarah Lucas
Self Portrait with Skull 1997
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© Sarah Lucas

Art terms related to self-image

  • Portrait

    A portrait is a representation of a particular person. A self-portrait is a portrait of the artist by the artist

  • Court

    Court painters were artists employed by royal courts to paint portraits of the royal family and their courtiers

  • Identity politics

    Identity politics is the term used to describe an anti-authoritarian political and cultural movement that gained prominence in the USA ...

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