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  • Russ Ramsey

Hidden Portraits

For this Art Wednesday we’ll take a look at paintings which contain hidden portraits and self-portraits. Let’s begin with Van Gogh. Vincent struggled to find love. Here in Road with Cypresses (1890), the man beside the woman in the carriage wears his signature red beard. He wanted this life, but never had it. Still, he painted himself in to the scene.

Van Gogh, Road with Cypresses, 1890, self-portrait in carriage with woman


Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1475. Botticelli is the muted man, far right, looking at the viewer. When you see a painting in which a character is making direct eye contact with the viewer, this is often the artist breaking the fourth wall to bring the viewer into the painting in a personal way.

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1475 (muted color, far right, looking at viewer)


Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, 1917. Who is The Thinker? He is Dante, author of The Inferno. This piece was made to sit atop a larger work called “The Gates of Hell.” Rodin wanted to capture Dante thinking about hell.

Rodin, Thinker, Gates of Hell, Dante, 1917


Rembrandt, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, 1637. Rembrandt and his wife Saskia. Soon after, Saskia died and Rembrandt went bankrupt. This was painted during a time when Rembrandt was living large, but on the verge of unthinkable loss.

Rembrandt (w Saskia), The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, Self- Portrait, 1637, a few years before Saskia died in 1642 and Rembrandt went bankrupt


Raphael, School of Athens, 1509. This one has at least three hidden portraits. Raphael himself (face only, looking at us) is at the far right. Michelangelo is leaning on a box, middle foreground, and DaVinci is in the red robe in the middle under the arch.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509, with Raphael (face only, seated far right), Michelangelo (Seated, middle foreground), and DaVinci (Red robe in middle)


Van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising in a Yard, 1890. This one’s not very hidden. Van Gogh painted this while he was living in an asylum for the mentally ill. It is claustrophobic, lonely, and cold, full of misery. Vincent looks at the viewer.

Van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising in a Yard, 1890, Hidden Self Portrait, Painted while in an asylum


Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609. Caravaggio gave the severed head of Goliath his own facial features. The inscription on David’s sword says H-AS OS, an abbreviation of humilitas occidit superbiam, “Humility kills pride.”

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609, Hidden Self Portrait in goliaths facial features


Rembrandt, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Rembrandt painted himself as one of the disciples. He’s in the middle, looking at us. I wrote a chapter about this painting in my book Rembrandt is in the Wind, which you can order here.

Rembrandt, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, hidden self-portrait, in forground, wearing bule, looking at viewer


That’s all for this Art Wednesday. One last piece: Michelangelo painted one of his critics, who was offended by the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s nudity, into that very ceiling, depicting him nude with donkey ears in hell. Michelangelo was known to do this sort of thing.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Donkey in Hell, one of Michelangelo's Critics


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