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Playing a role

Egypt, Sinai and Palestine by Francis Frith. 'Turkish summer costume'

Egypt, Sinai and Palestine by Francis Frith. 'Turkish summer costume' ©

A self-portrait provides an artist with the opportunity to choose what persona to present to the world. Clothing plays a transformative role in such representations, working alongside gesture, props and setting. Some artists imitate the appearance of an artist from an earlier generation, while others adopt historical, exotic or idiosyncratic clothing deliberately chosen to emphasise their non-conformity and cultivate a particular artistic or bohemian personality. Another way for artists to play with the idea of disguise is to show themselves as the personification of an allegorical figure, producing an image that can then be read on multiple levels.

Sometimes artists incorporate their own portraits into multi-figure narrative scenes. The earliest examples of such embedded portraits emerged in Florence during the Renaissance, when several artists included their image within a fresco cycle or altarpiece, in the same way that they also included portraits of the donor responsible for the commission. Occasionally portraiture and history painting are fused, with the artist playing a role from a mythological or historical story. Disguised self-portraits are also found in many scenes of contemporary life produced in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century.

After John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79)

A self-portrait in character

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606-Amsterdam 1669)

A self-portrait in a plumed cap

Attributed to Annibale Carracci (Bologna 1560-Rome 1609)

A presumed self-portrait

Attributed to Francesco Melzi (1493-1570)

Leonardo da Vinci

Alphonse Legros (1837-1911)

Alphonse Legros

Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857)

Portrait of the artist

Achille Melandri (1845-1905)

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)

Autoportrait en Chimere