Weird History
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Artists Who Snuck Themselves Into Their Paintings

Updated September 23, 2021 3.2k votes 465 voters 27k views12 items

List RulesVote up the hidden self-portraits that deserve a second look.

In a New Yorker cartoon by J.B. Handelsman, Rembrandt stands at an easel and says, "I feel another self-portrait coming on. Bring in the funny hats." Rembrandt's early painted "selfies" would fit on any Instagram feed (floppy big hats and all), but other painters from the past instead created self-portraits hidden in other paintings, creating a fine-art version of "Where's Waldo?" 

This practice was especially common during the Renaissance, which valued creative independence, although earlier artists did it as well. (Perhaps some of these secret self-portraits foreshadowed the fore-edge paintings starting in the 1700s.) But in some cases, the artist, even if not the center of attention, was still not too secret or hidden, and often peered out at the viewer. 

James Hall, in his book The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, writes that self-portraits raise questions: “Is the artist looking at us with a view to portraying or judging us? Is the artist looking at a mirror, with a view to portraying or judging themselves? Is the artist creating a persona to serve specific ends?" In the end, the viewer gets to decide.

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  • Photo: Raphael / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Raphael's fresco The School of Athens, painted from 1509 to 1511, is on display in the Stanza della Segnatura, one of the "Raphael Rooms" at the Vatican. It depicts the most famous classical philosophers and thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Euclid, Zoroaster, Ptolemy, and Diogenes.

    Raphael himself, wearing a dark beret, is supposedly on the far right under the arch looking out toward the viewer, perhaps throwing a nod to classical painters as equals of thinkers.

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  • 2. Clare Peeters: 'Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins, and Shells'

    Photo: Clara Peeters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Clare Peeters, according to the Museo Nacional del Prado, added a self-portrait to at least eight of her still-life works. Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins, and Shells includes six self-portraits in one painting. Peeters, holding her brushes and palette, can be seen in the decorative circles on the goblet in the back and to the right. 

    The museum suggests that these portraits not only show her skill at painting such tiny details, but also "[encourage] the viewer to acknowledge her existence."

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  • Photo: Michelangelo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Art experts have long believed that Michelangelo painted himself into his Sistine Chapel work The Last Judgment, but not until 2009 did they discover he might have added a self-portrait to his final painting, Crucifixion of Saint Peter, as well. The self-portrait was discovered during restoration of the painting, a fresco in the Vatican's Pauline Chapel.

    Michelangelo is supposedly the figure in a blue turban riding a horse in the top left of the painting. Until the restoration, historians didn't know who the figure might represent. As restorers worked on the painting, which the artist finished in 1550, they thought it might be Michelangelo, and confirmed their idea by compared his image to other artists' portraits of the artist.

    "The blue turban is a very strong indication because it's very typical of the hats worn by sculptors to keep the powder off themselves," said art scholar Giorgio Bonsanti.

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  • Photo: Jan van Eyck / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Art historians have numerous questions about Jan van Eyck's enigmatic, symbolic The Arnolfini Portrait painted in 1434, including the identities of the couple and their marital status; whether the woman is pregnant or just bunching up her dress; and the identities of the two figures reflected in the mirror in the middle of the painting.

    Some suggest one of the two people in the mirror might be van Eyck, especially because the writing in Latin above the mirror on the wall says (translated into English): "Jan van Eyck was here."

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