Identity through portraiture: the self

Learning outcomes

  1. Analyse the concept of ‘the self’ in art.
  1. Explore how artists convey identity, ideas and emotion in self-portraiture through a range of media and techniques.
  1. Develop portrait analysis, visual literacy and critical thinking skills.
  • View larger image
    Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga]),    by Everlyn Nicodemus,    1982,    NPG 7130,    © the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga])
by Everlyn Nicodemus
oil on canvas, 1982
32 1/4 in. x 24 3/8 in. (820 mm x 620 mm) overall
NPG 7130
© the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

The self is a person's essential being, it is what distinguishes us from others – what makes us unique. It comes from lived experience and goes beyond appearances.

Examples of self-based concepts that we apply to ourselves could include our personality or thinking of ourselves as being extroverted or introverted. Other elements of Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. such as Gender Identifying as male or female, especially with reference to social and cultural differences, rather than differences in biology. and Culture The customs and beliefs, art, way of life, and social organisation of a particular country or group. also feed into a perception of self.

When an artist makes a self-portrait, they are often thinking about their identity and their sense of self. They are reflecting on who they are and how to present this to the rest of the world.

  1. How do you control your own image and how others see you – in selfies, for example, and on social media?
  1. What clothes do you wear?
  1. How do you style your hair?
  1. What is your pose and expression?
  1. Where do you choose to photograph yourself?
  1. What objects or accessories do you surround yourself with?
  1. Do you change and adapt your ‘look’ for different audiences and purposes?

First impressions

Look closely at these self-portraits. Look at each one for at least a minute. Notice:

  • the colours the artist has used
  • the pose (how she is holding her body) and expression on her face
  • their clothes
  • any objects
  • the Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. .

  1. What are your first impressions of the person in each portrait?
  1. What is the overall mood of the self-portrait?
  1. What do you think each artist is trying to say about themselves?
  1. Is there anything else that strikes you about the portrait?

Look closer at Självporträtt, Åkersberga by Everlyn Nicodemus

  • View larger image
    Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga]),    by Everlyn Nicodemus,    1982,    NPG 7130,    © the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga])
by Everlyn Nicodemus
oil on canvas, 1982
32 1/4 in. x 24 3/8 in. (820 mm x 620 mm) overall
NPG 7130
© the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
I refuse to be a prisoner of racism, sexism and the past …
Everlyn Nicodemus, 2022

Everlyn Nicodemus is an artist, writer and curator. She has been described as ‘one of the strongest Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. voices to emerge from eastern Africa in the past 30 years’. Born in Tanzania, Nicodemus moved across Europe before settling in Scotland.

She documents her own experience as a woman as well as the experiences of other women. This is inspired by her conversations with them. She also addresses the racism and Marginalised Being prevented from participating fully in society because of a lack of access to rights, resources and opportunities. she faced when she moved to Europe and the trauma this caused.

The healing power of art in voicing painful experiences is an important aspect of her art. She has described her paintings as expressing ‘the triumph of the human spirit over suffering’.

  • View larger image
    Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga]),    by Everlyn Nicodemus,    1982,    NPG 7130,    © the Artist, Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery
Everlyn Nicodemus ('Självporträtt, Åkersberga' [Self-portrait, Akersberga]), by Everlyn Nicodemus, 1982
    • There appear to be multiple heads in the painting. These overlap and are clustered in the centre of the canvas but face in different directions.
    • Nicodemus has combined different styles within the painting. Some of the heads look more realistic while others are Abstract Art which doesn't show people, animals or objects as they really are, but uses shapes, colours and marks to represent them. . The heads appear to weigh heavily on each other and on the thin neck that supports them.
    • All the heads in the portrait represent Nicodemus. She shows herself from different angles and perspectives representing the different sides of herself.
    • The self-portrait reflects the various roles she is expected to play, and her Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. as a mother, lover, friend and daughter – alongside her identities as a writer and an artist.
    • The self-portrait also reflects her Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. as a Black woman. Nicodemus painted this self-portrait after a decade of living in Sweden. She has spoken about the racism she faced when she moved to Sweden and the assumptions people made about her. The multiple heads perhaps represent the various ways that she was seen by others, and how different this was from the reality of who she is.
    • Nicodemus experiments with different ways of expressing her Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. using paint.
    • She has contrasted vibrant colours with muted colours and flat shapes with textures. These different colours and textures help to define the different faces and emphasise the contrasting Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. .
    • Although in places the heads overlap and seem to blend into each other, they have distinct faces and features. (Perhaps reflecting the distinct identities that combine to make her who she is.)
    • There are multiple heads in the portrait. The Abstract Art which doesn't show people, animals or objects as they really are, but uses shapes, colours and marks to represent them. faces are formed of simple shapes of flat colour. Some features have a ‘cut-out’ graphic look.
    • The other two heads have more realistic features, and their colour is more natural.
    • The surface of the painting is a rich mix of different textures and thicknesses of paint. Nicodemus experiments with different approaches to mark-making.
    • In some areas the rough texture of the canvas shows through. In other areas (such as the long neck at the bottom of the painting) she seems to have scratched zigzags and geometric shapes into the paint.

Look closer at Sarah Biffin’s self-portrait

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    Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    circa 1825,    NPG 7110,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sarah Biffin (Beffin)
attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin)
watercolour and graphite, circa 1825
3 7/8 in. (100 mm overall)
NPG 7110
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 5 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery
I was continually practising my every invention; till at length I could, with my mouth – thread a needle – tie a knot – do fancy work – cut out and make my own dresses.
Sarah Biffin, 1821

Sarah Biffin (1784–1850) was a celebrated artist who became particularly well-known for painting Miniature Small, detailed artworks that were often worn on a chain or carried, as a reminder of someone special.  – small, detailed artworks that could be worn on a chain or carried as a reminder of someone special.

Biffin was born without arms or legs, a condition now known as phocomelia. As a child, she taught herself to sew, write and paint by holding a brush between her teeth. She became an accomplished and successful artist, painting many famous people, including members of the royal family.

Biffin succeeded in a period when women were Marginalised Being prevented from participating fully in society because of a lack of access to rights, resources and opportunities. , and people living with disabilities faced particular hardship. Despite her incredible achievements and the high standard of her miniatures, she was forgotten after her death. Many of her works were credited to male artists. She is only recently being rediscovered. 

  • View larger image
    Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin),    circa 1825,    NPG 7110,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sarah Biffin (Beffin), attributed to Sarah Biffin (Beffin), circa 1825
    • Sarah Biffin is wearing a smart dress and an elaborate hat with a feather. These were the kind of fashionable clothes worn by well-off women in the early 1800s. However, these clothes would not be practical for painting.
    • We can also see a long necklace with a ring hanging from it – this is a wedding ring from her recent marriage.
    • Biffin is advertising her professional skills as a painter of Miniature Small, detailed artworks that were often worn on a chain or carried, as a reminder of someone special.  – small, detailed artworks that were often worn on a chain or carried, as a reminder of someone special.  
    • She is presenting herself as a respectable woman, to the sort of people who could afford to have their portrait painted. 
    • In this portrait Biffin has shown herself in the act of painting. She is dipping a paintbrush into a glass of water, to use with watercolour paints.
    • There is a small card or piece of Ivory A hard white substance like bone that forms the tusks of elephants and some other animals. (which miniaturists sometimes painted onto) in front of her.
    • Biffin used watercolour and graphite pencil to create this Miniature Small, detailed artworks that were often worn on a chain or carried, as a reminder of someone special.  portrait which measures just 100 mm overall (smaller than a phone screen).
    • This method of creating Miniature Small, detailed artworks that were often worn on a chain or carried, as a reminder of someone special.  is highly skilled and precise with the artist using a brush containing just a few hairs to create the fine details.
    • Biffin’s brush is tied to the top of her sleeve. This helped her technique of holding the brush between her shoulder and cheek or mouth.
    • There is a Painting slope A flat surface positioned at an angle to allow for a comfortable working position. in front of her. This enabled her to position the portrait she was working on at just the right angle. When she was painting, she leant her right shoulder forward, almost touching the table.

Look closer at Gwen John

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    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    circa 1900,    NPG 4439,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Gwen John
by Gwen John
oil on canvas, circa 1900
24 in. x 14 7/8 in. (610 mm x 378 mm)
NPG 4439
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Gwen John (1876–1939) was a Welsh painter. She attended the Slade School of Art in London at a time when it was rare for women to train to be professional artists. Her classmates would have been mainly, if not all, men.

After her time at the Slade, she lived independently, not relying on family for financial support. Again, this was unusual, and makes her an early Feminist Having or based on the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. role model.

John was a young woman, aged about 24 years old, when she painted this strong, skilfully observed self-portrait. Her reputation has grown steadily since her death. Today, she is seen as one of the leading female artists of the twentieth century.

  • View larger image
    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    circa 1900,    NPG 4439,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Gwen John, by Gwen John, circa 1900
    • Gwen John stands with her hands on hips, head held high with chin raised and back upright.
    • Her head is turned slightly and she looks out at us with a steady, commanding Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. .
    • Her expression and pose make her look confident and possibly defiant, as if she is challenging us.
    • She is wearing a russet-coloured blouse with ‘puffed’ sleeves and lots of folds and pleats. It is gathered at the waist with a wide buckled belt. She isn’t wearing any jewellery but has a large, dark bow at her neck.
    • The rich, shiny fabric of the blouse, along with the huge bow, puffed sleeves and wide belt seem to emphasise a sense of confidence.
    • The clothes also make her appear bigger – the sleeves of the blouse filling the space either side of her. Perhaps this is a form of power dressing – ‘don’t mess with me’ she seems to be telling us.
    • This is a three-quarter length portrait, and John’s head and upper body fill the space. This enables us to see her facial expression clearly, as well as her choice of outfit and her body language.
    • She has painted herself against a plain background, which means there are no distractions – and our focus is on her.
    • The shape of her hand echoes the 'puff' of her sleeve, emphasising its shape.
    • Her position of the hand, at the bottom of the painting, also acts as a Counterbalance To have an equal but opposite effect to something else. to her face (as the only other pale area of the portrait) drawing our eyes around the painting.
    • She has used a subtle Tonal Relating to shades of colour. range of muted colours. She perhaps chose these earthy colours to make her seem serious and grounded.
    • The colours might also remind us of Old Master A skilled and distinguished artist, active between the 1200s and 1600s in Europe. paintings – such as Rembrandt A Dutch artist active in the 1600s, known for his use of rich colour, light and shadow, and his interest in personality and character. ’s self-portraits. This perhaps suggests that Gwen John saw herself within a grand tradition of portrait painting and that she wanted to be seen as equal with these painters of the past.
    • The dark tone of the background contrasts with the lighter tones used to paint her blouse and skin, ensuring that she stands out.
    • Although she was only 24 years old, she shows off her ability as a painter in the way she uses paint and applies it to the different surfaces.
    • She used broad, loose brush strokes to paint her clothes and the background surface. (We can almost feel the rich, silky fabric of her blouse.) These are expertly contrasted with the delicate dabs of paint that she uses to model the lines and shadows of her face.

Exploring pose

To pose is to sit or stand in a particular position, while an artist creates a portrait. The way a sitter poses for a portrait can influence how we see that person, through their body language. For example, a standing pose with a wide Stance The way in which somebody stands or holds their body. and hands on hips can give an impression of confidence or superiority.

  1. Copy Gwen John’s pose in this portrait. How does it make you feel?
  1. Look in a full-length mirror and try out different poses and gazes. Think about how you feel as you change your position. Change your stance, the position of your hands and arms. Move your spine in different ways, from upright to slumped. What happens to your appearance?

Gwen John: a changing sense of self

Compare and contrast this self-portrait by Gwen John with another self-portrait, made two years later, in 1902.

  • View larger image
    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    circa 1900,    NPG 4439,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Gwen John, by Gwen John, circa 1900
  • View larger image
    Gwen John,    by Gwen John,    1902, © Tate,        Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0
Gwen John, by Gwen John, 1902, © Tate
  1. What are your first impressions about the mood of each portrait?
  1. How are Gwen John’s pose, gaze and clothing different, and how does this affect how we see her?
  1. How has she used composition and colour to present a different image of herself?
    • The self-portrait from 1900 looks bold and flamboyant. The self-portrait from 1902 is quieter and more muted.
    • Her pose in the later portrait is less confrontational. She sits quietly with her shoulders sloping and her arms by her side. Her eyes don’t look as if they are trying to hold our Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. , and her expression looks more contemplative.
    • Gone too is the ‘power-dressing’ outfit from the earlier portrait. She wears a simple fitted checked blouse with a small, neat collar and a brooch at her neck.
    • Rather than filling the Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. as she does in the portrait from 1900, she appears smaller with more background visible in the later portrait.
    • When Gwen John painted these self-portraits in 1900, women were not allowed to vote in general elections, so they had little influence on laws or how society was governed.
    • Although many working-class women worked in factories or as domestic servants, the lives of most women revolved around caring for children, looking after their husbands, and carrying out domestic duties such as shopping, cooking and cleaning.
    • Middle-class women such as Gwen John, were expected to stay at home and manage the household. It was generally considered improper for middle-class women to work.
    • Gwen John was a skilled painter – a career almost exclusively reserved for men at that time.
    • She was determined to pursue her own path in art rather than follow the fashions of the time. It is perhaps this confidence and sense of pride that Gwen John shows in the self-portrait from 1900.
    • The 1902 self-portrait fits more closely with Gwen John’s description of herself when she said that her: ‘... shyness and timidity distort the very meaning of my words in people's ears. That I think is one reason why I am such a waif.
    • Though she may have been shy she seemed to know how significant her art was, and that the world would one day recognise this.

Think about the self-portraits you have looked at in this resource.

  1. Have your first impressions of each sitter changed? Why?
  1. In what ways have the artists told you more about themselves than simply ‘what they look like’?
  1. What challenges might these artists have faced as women living in different times? How might that have influenced their work?
  1. If you were creating a self-portrait, how would you put across your identity using pose, expression, clothing, props and formal elements such as composition and colour?
  1. What sort of mood or atmosphere would you want your self-portrait to have?
  1. We saw how Everlyn Nicodemus and Gwen John presented different aspects of their identity through self-portraits. How might you represent the different aspects of who you are?

Next steps

Explore these self-portraits. Choose one that interests you.

  1. What techniques and media has the artist used? 
  1. How is the portrait composed (arranged)? What does this achieve?
  1. What is the mood or atmosphere of the portrait? How has the artist achieved this? (e.g., lighting, colour palette, expression, pose)
  1. How has the artist used formal elements such as colour, line, shape, form, tone, texture and space to communicate ideas and meaning?
  1. How has the artist used elements such as props, objects, clothing, background, pose or expression to communicate their sense of self in this portrait?
  1. What do you, personally, think or feel about this portrait? Do you like it? Can you relate to it in any way?
  1. Find out more about the artist and/or the time and place the portrait was made.
  1. Does this change your ideas about the portrait?
  1. How might this self-portrait, or other self-portraits you have seen in this resource, influence your own work?