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'Eye To I' Exhibition Celebrates Over A Century Of Self-Portraiture

Why do artists paint so many self-portraits?

For starters, they're always available, says Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. "In the middle of the night when the urge strikes, you've got yourself."

Some artists can't afford models, others are simply vain. Portrait Gallery curator Brandon Fortune thinks self-portraits let artists work out technical problems. And of course, there's posterity: "They're also done as a kind of self-reflection," Fortune says. "To present a persona to the world that may not be true or authentic, but is the character the artist wants to be remembered as."

More than 70 of these autobiographical artworks are now on view at the Portrait Gallery in an exhibition called Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today. Twenty-one-year-old Edward Hopper is moody, in a charcoaled turtle neck. Diego Rivera does not disguise his double chin. Jim Dine has no chin — or head, for that matter — he just etches his bathrobe.

Alice Neel was 75 when she painted her self-portrait. Completely nude, seated in a comfy blue and white striped chair, her belly bulges, her breasts sag, her lips turn down. There's a brush in her right hand, a bright white rag in the left. It's authentic, ruthless and brave.

"She said at one point that this portrait was really hard to make," Fortune says. "She said it was so hard that 'my cheeks got red with the effort.' "

No wonder. Neel is taking on the entire history of nude paintings — made mostly by men, starting in the 16th century. They painted lovingly, voluptuously, idealistically. Neel takes the male gaze, "and she flips it," Fortune says. "She takes control of the gaze. It's her gaze. She takes control of the way that her body is going to be presented."

It is an act of truth — and audacity.

And it's a far cry from the way Thomas Hart Benton painted himself in 1924. He was on Martha's Vineyard, and crazy about his new wife Rita — and the movies.

Thomas Hart Benton painted <em>Self-Portrait with Rita</em> circa 1924.
/ National Portrait Gallery
Thomas Hart Benton painted <em>Self-Portrait with Rita</em> circa 1924.

"Benton's portrait makes him out to be some Hollywood dashing superstar," Sajet says.

Stripped to the waist and sporting a black mustache, he looks sexy and swashbuckling — it's an unquestionable "assertion of vigor," says Fortune.

The photograph Walker Evans took of himself in 1934 is neither vigorous nor preening. The Farm Security Administration had hired him to document the Depression's effect on Americans.

"He's at the end of the day photographing misery and seeing how people are forced to live during this terrible time in our history," Fortune says.

Evans' eyes hold pain, his face is full of compassion. He's seen awful things, and he's making sure we see it, too.

Walker Evans made this gelatin silver print self-portrait while he was working for The Farm Security Administration in the 1930s.
/ National Portrait Gallery/Walker Evans Archive/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Walker Evans made this gelatin silver print self-portrait while he was working for The Farm Security Administration in the 1930s.

There's no way not to see Chuck Close's self-portrait — you can see it here. He's taken 16 big Polaroid glossies — each measuring 20 by 24 inches — and linked them mosaic-like, into a huge color image — about 9 feet by 7 feet. Close looks straight out at us, through round glasses.

The artist became paralyzed after a spinal artery collapse in 1988. "He made this Polaroid the following year," Fortune explains. "He's looking for ways to make art that can be done by someone who is a quadriplegic." The powerful self-portrait seems a statement of defiance in the face of tragedy — as if he's saying, I'm larger than what's happened to me. I'm still here.

The work is especially gripping now, as Close's National Gallery exhibit was recently canceled after several women accused the artist of sexual harassment, for which he apologized.

At the National Portrait Gallery until mid-August, these messages to the future — preserved in oil, lithograph, pencil, charcoal and video — are statements of how artists saw themselves, and how they wanted us to see them.

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