Top 10 self-portraits


Every other Friday Artprice offers you an auction ranking to help you apprehend some of the primary trends in the Art Market. This week, Artprice takes another look at self-portraiture, one of Art History’s primary subjects.

By definition, a self-portrait is an image of oneself created by oneself. It is also a way of figuratively locating oneself in the events and preoccupations of the era, or of figuratively representing (or suggesting) one’s inner feelings. Over the centuries, the self-portrait genre has undergone a number of evolutions. With Raphael and Dürer it expressed their wealth and well-being; in Picasso’s early works, exactly the opposite… poverty and misery. The act of self-representation also boasts know-how and skill: “I am this work” contains the affirmation “It is I who created it”. Renaissance artists used the self-portrait in an unashamedly narcissistic manner to flaunt both their talent and their status. The self-portrait was also an obvious way of showcasing an artist’s capacity to capture a likeness, especially for visitors (potential customers) to the artist’s studio.

However, lots of self-portraits are painted for the simple practical reason that the artist has no-one else to paint. Frida Kahlo, for example, said: I paint myself because I spend a lot of time alone and because I am the subject I know best. A practical solution and an economic one as well, with no model to pay. From the Renaissance to the modern day ‘selfie, self-representation has never gone out of fashion. It has only transformed itself, increasingly becoming an exercise in introspection (c.f. Nan Goldin), a living testimony (Opalka), or a visual exploration of the philosophical conundrum neatly expressed by the French poet Rimbaud when he wrote “I is another(Claude Cahun, Michel Journiac, Cindy Sherman amongst others).

With so many artists having worked self-portraits over the course of history, it is perhaps surprising to find the top 10 places in this auction ranking occupied by just two artists. The absence of Old Masters from this ranking is essentially because their self-portraits are no longer exchanged on the market, having long been integrated into museum collections. In the case of Rembrandt, the undisputed master of self-portraiture (he painted roughly a hundred), the last time a self-portrait by the Dutch artist came to auction was 15 years ago, fetching $11.4 million in London (Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes, 1634, 70.8 x 55.2 cm, Sotheby’s, on 7 october 2003). That price is of course only a fraction of the prices commanded by the two market leaders in this genre: Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 Andy WARHOL (1928-1987) 65 204 489 Self-Portrait 11/05/2011 Christie’s New York
2 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 25 918 362 Two Studies For A Self-Portrait 11/05/2016 Sotheby’s New York
3 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 21 533 175 Three Studies for Self-Portrait 30/06/2008 Christie’s London
4 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 21 184 619 Study for Self-Portrait 27/06/2012 Christie’s London
5 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 12 490 583 Three Studies for Self-Portrait
13/05/2008 Christie’s New York
6 Andy WARHOL (1928-1987) 11 547 242 Self-Portrait 11/05/2011 Christie’s New York
7 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 9 903 016 Three Studies for Self-Portrait 11/05/2011 Christie’s New York
8 Andy WARHOL (1928-1987) 9 672 123 Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) 17/11/2016 Sotheby’s New York
9 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 9 620 586 Self-Portrait 01/07/2015 Sotheby’s London
10 Francis BACON (1909-1992) 9 366 687 « Three Studies for Self-Portrait » 01/07/2015 Sotheby’s London
copyright © 2018

Bacon and deformation

Like Rembrandt, Bacon hated his face and, like Rembrandt, he nevertheless painted numerous representations of himself. In an interview with David Sylvester, Bacon confided I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it because I haven’t got any other people to do […] One of the nicest things that Cocteau said was `Each day in the mirror I watch death at work.’ This is what one does oneself. (The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London, 2002). Bacon of course often brutalised his own image. For Bacon, self-portraiture was a medium for conveying bodily sensations and human instincts, but also the futility of existence and our tragic destiny. By distorting his face, he erased his own personal identity and projected an aesthetic of anguish… he expressed obsession and pain through the cries of paint become flesh. This carnal power elicits passionate bidding at auctions: no less than nine of the artist’s self-portraits have changed hands above $20 million. Of these, seven are in our Top 10 ranking, making Francis Bacon the most sought-after and most expensive artist in the self-portraiture genre.

Warhol and Accumulation

The other market star whose self-portraits rival Bacon’s results is of course Andy Warhol, who made himself as famous as the subjects of his silkscreen prints (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, etc.) by multiplying his own image in the same medium. Well acquainted with the codes of advertising and fashion, Warhol orchestrated his personality cult with some of the most celebrated self-portraits in the history of art, including a mosaic of nine self-portraits in 1966 and his Self Portraits in Camouflage of the 1980s. Warhol often used an automatic shutter release to capture his own image and then transferred the negative image onto a ‘sieve’ that served as a stencil to apply colours to the canvas. Screen printing allowed him to chain-produce his portrait, varying the colours at will. Beyond screen printing, Warhol used another tool in vogue during his era, the Polaroid, notably for a series of transvestite self-portraits (Self-Portraits in Drag) made between 1980 and 1982. These rare works – with their expression-less face, careful poses, wigs and makeup – can fetch very high prices. Some are estimated around $50,000… a price that matches the legend, for a photo measuring 10 x 8 cm.

Artists to follow…

In the age of the selfie, self-portraiture has the wind in its sails and is still being explored from new angles. One of these is a distinctly socio-political use of the genre that is being explored by a number of African artists like Samuel Fosso, Tracey Rose and Zanele Muholi. Fosso and Muholi do not consider their “disguised” self-portraits as disguises per se but rather as actions designed to subvert prejudice. These ‘engaged’ artists are beginning to bite in the auction market, particularly Zanele Muholi, who this year crossed the $10,000 threshold for the first time with a photographic self-portrait from her series Somnyama ngonyama ( Hail the Dark Lioness in Zulu), a militant and humorous series defending her identity as a black lesbian woman… powerful self-portraits to open minds.