From taking the perfect selfie to painting one’s innermost character, self-portraits have been used throughout art history as an essential mode of communication. Progressive artists like Frida Kahlo and Rembrandt van Rijn used self-portraiture to explore their own identities as well as the social roles and expectations that accompanied their social identities. In this essay, I will compare and contrast The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo and Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar by Rembrandt as well as examine the use of self-portraiture in conveying identity concerning each artist’s historical, cultural, and biographical context.
To fully understand how these artists utilized the self-portrait, a brief history of self-portraiture is necessary. Self-portraiture has remained a consistent theme in art history throughout the various movements and styles that define the art of the past.
One of the oldest surviving self-portraits is a stone sculpture from 1365 BCE by an artist named Bak who is best known for sculpting the controversial Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Few self-portraits predating the Italian Renaissance exist due to the perishable nature of paint (the primary medium for self-portraits) as well as the “lack of evidence concerning individual artists” during a time when most arts were created collaboratively in guilds or workshops (“Self-Portrait Paintings”). It is not until the fifteenth century that artists, with their newfound status as distinguished intellectuals, begin to create self-portraits regularly. As interest in the individual artist continues to develop, historians examine how artists depict themselves to shed light on the social attitudes and expectations of past societies.
Who better to begin our discussion of identity in self-portraiture than Frida Kahlo, a revolutionary painter most famous for her striking self-portraits. Born in Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo was never an advocate for the convention. Unlike her female peers, she played sports at an early age, proudly voiced her political opinions, and was a “rebellious loner who often dressed in indigenous clothing” (Bravo). Kahlo began painting in 1925 after she was seriously injured in a bus accident that left her bedridden for several weeks and caused her life-long health complications. In 1929, Frida married famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
The couple traveled together to Diego’s commissions and lived in separate, but adjoining homes in San Angel, Mexico. Frida and Diego experienced several periods of separation due to Diego’s many infidelities and led largely separate lives throughout their marriage. In The Two Fridas, the artist calls attention to her painful past burdened with constant medical treatment by graphically exposing her anatomy, a common theme in Kahlo’s paintings. By creating two opposing representations of the female body, Kahlo “did not merely leave the work with an objectified body but forced the viewer to contend with the individual who is that object” (Meskimmon). In this self-portrait, the two Fridas hold hands and are bonded by a vein connecting their hearts. While the figure on the right pines for her husband’s lost love, represented by the vein feeding a miniature portrait of Rivera, the figure on the left holds a bloody hemostat, cutting the physical and metaphoric tie with her weaker self. The artist depicts herself twice both as a symbol of her conflicting social roles as wife and artist and as a reference to her 1931 wedding portrait, Frida and Diego Rivera. In Frida and Diego Rivera, Frida celebrates her union with Diego but reflects on his past infidelities as shown in the couple’s tentative grasp. By contrast, her double self-portrait in The Two Fridas reveals a remorseful separation between her two identities and “though laden with suffering, exhibits resilience” (Bravo). On the other hand, Rembrandt van Rijn was a 17th-century Dutch painter famous for his portraits and skillful use of chiaroscuro – an Italian term related to the handling of light and shadow. Rembrandt was born in Leiden, the Netherlands in 1606 and was trained as an artist under two Dutch masters from 1620 to 1625. Elevated from his contemporaries by his brilliant handling of light, Rembrandt began to receive large commissions in 1625 afterword of an innovative new portraitist reached nearby Amsterdam. By the time he painted Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, Rembrandt was nearing the end of his artistic career and had witnessed the death of his beloved wife and three of his children. The hollowed-out cheekbones and melancholic, exhausted expression on the artist’s face in this self-portrait express Rembrandt’s physical and emotional aging as well as his unique ability to “capture with amazing sensitivity an individual’s spirit and character – including his own” (Webster). Unlike earlier self-portraits, Self-Portrait with Beret was painted in thick layers using a diverse palette of tactile pigment, an indication of the artist’s ever-evolving style and interest in expressing technical skills gained from years of experience. Furthermore, Self-Portrait with Beret is less finished than Rembrandt’s earlier portraits and was painted with loose brushstrokes, highlighting the artist’s increasing expressiveness as his life and artistic career waned. Both The Two Fridas and Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar express the shifting identities of their respective artists.
In both self-portraits, the painter reflects on the end of an era. In Frida Kahlo’s case, the artist alludes to the end of her relationship with Diego Rivera by depicting a strong version of herself cutting ties with a weaker Frida who clings to her husband’s love. Similarly, Rembrandt uses thoughtful brushstrokes and a wistful facial expression to communicate “the stresses and strains of a life compounded of creative triumphs and personal and financial reverses” as he reflects on the end of his artistic career (Webster). In both cases, the artists grieve the end of an era but exhibit dignity in the recognition of their own evolving identities. Furthermore, while Frida Kahlo enhances the personal nature of her work using symbols, Rembrandt alters his painting technique to express his subjective view of himself. A departure from the perfectionism of his earlier works, the seemingly unfinished nature of Self-Portrait with Beret conveys Rembrandt’s humble acceptance of his fading youth as well as the physical imperfections associated with old age. By contrast, Frida Kahlo expressly paints the exposed hearts of her two conflicting identities, an indication of her vulnerability and emotional suffering as she questions her relationship with Diego Rivera. Both Kahlo and Rembrandt use self-portraiture to express their subjective thoughts and feelings in a way that allows viewers to interpret and analyze aspects of the artist’s identity.
In this sense, self-portraiture is a uniquely informative tool for communicating personal convictions without risk of simplification. In conclusion, The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo and Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar by Rembrandt display the complex role of self-portraiture in examining one’s own identity. By examining an artist’s inner image of themself, we learn not only about the artist’s struggles and triumphs but about the society in which they lived and the social expectations they faced. Sometimes, we even learn a thing or two about ourselves.