Self-portraits as artistic questioning of the self, have always been found in art history – but it is especially women that engage strikingly often with this genre. A reason for this is their social status; women always had to assert and prove their role as professional artists way more than their male counterparts. Many women do so through self-portraits, which – whether doubtful, confident or cheeky – are all impressive testimonies of their self-reassurance in the world. 

The Dutch Baroque painter Judith Leyster already self-confidently eternalised herself in her work during the mid-17th century. Her popular artistic self-image highlights the positive self-image of the artist and provides proof of the independence of Judith Leyster as an extremely successful artist. She had numerous paying apprentices, was well-connected and never out of new assignments. 

Judith Leyster, Selbstportrait, um 1630
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss

In her self-portraits, Lotte Laserstein often depicted herself as a professional painter. The highly skilled artist deliberately staged herself as a painter, to assert her professional status. Laserstein was one of the first female artists to be allowed to attend renowned art academies from 1919 onwards. Furthermore, she managed to establish herself as an appraised female painter in the highly competitive Berlin art scene; an achievement remarkable enough to be continuously honoured in her art works.

“For Laserstein, the self-portraits were especially important in order to show the world: “Hey, I’m a painter!” They were programmatic self-representations. We often see her in her painter’s coat like a status symbol, with a huge palette, these are all painted business cards.”
Anna-Carola Krausse, art historian
Lotte Laserstein, Selbstbildnis mit Katze, 1928
© VG BILDKUNST 2021 / Courtesy Privatarchiv Anna-Carola Krausse

Anita Rée created self-portraits as a form of self-assurance. In 1930, at the height of her career, she realised this very open and simultaneously protective self-portrait, reflecting the quiet seriousness and deep melancholy with which the Jewish artist looked at her world, that had become unstable. 

Selbstbildnis Anita Rée, 1930
Courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle
“This self-portrait is direct in its frontality especially with that naked upper body, that of course, to an extent, one hardly knows from a picture of classical modernism – especially not from a woman.”
Karin Schick, curator of Hamburger Kunsthalle

Exceptionally radical self-portraits were created by Dresden-based New Objectivity painter Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler. The virtuous draughtswoman committed herself to reality with merciless devotion and painted the nefarious flipside of the supposedly Golden Twenties. Not only the living conditions of the impoverished and mentally unstable artist, but also her view of herself are harsh. In numerous self-portraits, she testifies her despair, her sorrow and her doubts, but also reflects the crisis of a creative and a modern, intellectual woman.

Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Selbstportrait und Schatten, 1931
Privatsammlung Kreischa

Especially in art photography, many female artists have put themselves centre stage, utilising the new medium for their experimental self-portraits. For example, British artist Julia Margaret Cameron became the most important photographer of the Victorian era with her religious-romantic photographs and dreamy self-portraits. 

The expressionist painter Helene Funke explored the possibilities of photographic self-portraits as early as 1900 and established herself as a modern, cosmopolitan artist between Munich, Paris and Vienna.

From the style of “New Vision” and the likes of Florence Henri, to modern like Ré Soupault and Gertrud Arndt who was playing with her role as a woman, numerous Bauhaus artists staged themselves in avant-garde photographs. In her almost surrealist photography Claude Cahun questions her own identity. 

Helene Funke auf dem Dach eines Wiener Wohnhauses, 1912
Courtesy Nachlass Helene Funke

Starting in the early 1970s, female artists of the feminist avant-garde were shaking up established role models with their self-portraits and entered into a critical dialogue with their own self; Who am I as a woman? Who am I as an artist? Among them are VALIE EXPORT, Birgit Jürgenssen, Annegret Soltau, Cindy Sherman, Karin Mack, Margot Pilz, Francesca Woodman and many more. 

Annegret Soltau, Permanente Demostration #3, 1976
Courtesy Sammlung Verbund

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Artistic questioning of the self
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Selbstportrait mit Zigarette
Courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle