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  • Writer's pictureVishakha

Iconic Paintings with Hidden Self-Portrait By Famous Artists

Updated: May 28

The world of art is filled with enigma and magic. Many artists in history have often created pieces of artwork that never fail to intrigue us. One such wonder of this world is hidden self-portraits. There are several instances in the past where artists decided to make themselves a part of their own canvas. While some chose to make obvious self-portrait paintings, others chose to be sneaky and paint their inconspicuous selves.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Michelangelo containing his hidden self-portrait

There are several reasons that make these sneaky self-portraits one of the most interesting types of portraits to look at. They represent the artists’ skills, their personalities and also give insight into what goes on in their minds. Take a look at these famous paintings where artists chose to be playful and found unique ways to insert themselves into their paintings. 

Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels by Clara Peeters

Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels by Clara Peeters with her hidden self-portrait on jug lid

When it comes to creating still-life artworks, Clara Peeters has taken them a notch higher with her hidden self-portraits. Out of the many still-life paintings she created, she added her face in at least eight of them. Her work is proof that she was one of the most prominent still-life artists of her time. However, being a female artist in the seventeenth century comes with its own set of cons. 

A close-up of Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels by Clara Peeters, showing her hidden self-portrait

It was not so easy for women to openly create their self-portraits leaving ambiguity as the only choice. Maybe that’s why this Flemish artist incorporated her visages in the craftiest way possible — painting hidden self-portraits.  While you may find nothing extraordinary in her paintings at first glance, a closer look will tell you what makes them special. 

a close-up of Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels by Clara Peeters showing her signature as knife carving

In one of her best still-life works, Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, you can find two instances, where the artist made her identity so clearly evident. The first is her reflection on the  lid of the ceramic jug behind the cheese platter. Even though her features are not clearly visible, it isn’t hard to guess who it is. Now, if you look closely at the silver butter knife, you can see Peeter’s name “engraved” on it. Such intricate detailing on the knife speaks volumes about her skills as an artist.

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, showing his hidden self-po in the mirrorrtrait

Also known as the wedding portrait, this is one of the most complex yet interesting artworks to look at. A dual portrait of the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife has many accolades to its name. It is one of the earliest Renaissance paintings, and also one of the first oil paintings ever made. 

A close up of the mirror in Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, showing his hidden self-portrait

This painting set in a Flemish house is full of its symbolic details. However, without getting too much into that let us show you where can you spot the artist in this painting. If you zoom in on the mirror hanging on the wall behind the couple, you can see the reflection of more than just the couple in it.

A close up of the writing in Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, corroborating his hidden self-portrait

It is said the Arnolfini couple had a clandestine wedding and the artist, Jan van Eyck was its only witness. There is graffiti right above the mirror which translates to “Jan van Eyck was here 1434.” Taking this into consideration, it is speculated that the man in the red turban (as seen in the reflection) could be the artist himself, along with his assistant.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo

What if I told you that the Renaissance master Michelangelo absolutely hated creating the frescos of the Sistine Chapel? Shocking, right? He had already established his identity by creating famous sculptures like Pieta and David, but he was not ready to take a painting commission.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo with his hidden self-portrait in Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo did not want to take on the work because he did not see himself as a painter. The only reason he took the commission was because of the enormous amount of money he received in exchange for it. He hated the work so much that he even wrote a poem about his misery.

Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin with Michelangelo's face which is his hidden self-portrait

However, to take out his frustration, he decided to have some fun at the Pope’s expense, his patron. While working on the Last Judgement, Michelangelo hid his self-portrait in the fresco in one of the most outlandish ways possible. You can see him as an eyeless face with sagging skin hanging in the hands of Saint Bartholomew. It is said that the saint was martyred and excoriated alive. He is holding the knife used for excoriation in one hand and flagellated skin in the other, but instead of his skin, it is Michelangelo’s.

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens with hidden self-portrait of Raphael

The famous fresco by Raphael is a seminal piece from the Italian Renaissance period. It truly follows the realistic representation of humans seen throughout this time. The painting is also a classic example of a foreshortening and linear perspective that other artists from this period followed.

Michelangelo as Heraclitus in the School of Athens Painting

Technicalities aside, what makes this Renaissance painting a true masterpiece is the depiction of real-life people as different characters. It has the face of Michelangelo used as Heraclitus, Leonardo da Vinci as Plato, and Giuliano de Sangalo as Aristotle. 

Hidden self-portrait of Raphael in the school of Athens

The painting also has a hidden self-portrait of Raphael himself looking directly into the eyes of the viewers. If you look closely towards the right foreground, there is a group of men consisting of Ptolemy and Zoroaster. Right behind them, you can spot Raphael donning a beret and looking back at you.

David With the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio

If there is an artist who matched the drama in his artworks with that of his real life, it has got to be Caravaggio. Although a brilliant artist, he was also a murderer with an arrogant and rebellious attitude. Throughout his short life, he has incorporated numerous hidden self-portraits in his works and one of them is David With the Head of Goliath.

David with the head of Goliath Painting by Caravaggio with his hidden self-portrait

The painting is based on the famous biblical tale where David took down the giant Goliath with one slingshot. Caravaggio created numerous versions of the incident, one of which is this. You can see David proffering the severed head of the defeated Goliath which is actually Caravaggio himself. If you observe David, his facial expression is remorseful and not of victory – perhaps mourning Goliath’s death. The model for David is said to be Cecco, the artist’s assistant at his studio and maybe even his lover.

Coronation of the Emperor Napoleon I by Jacques-Louis David

The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon with a hidden self portrait

This painting signifies an important event in French history and is one of the biggest paintings at the Louvre Museum today. It is a life-size depiction of the coronation of the emperor Napoleon after overthrowing the French monarchy. The painting was commissioned to Jacques-Louis David by the emperor himself after he pledged his allegiance to the emperor. 

The hidden self portrait of Jacques Louis David in The Coronation of Emperor Napoleon Painting

You can spot the artist on the second balcony with a sketchbook in his hand, as he is recording the scene on paper. Unlike the other paintings mentioned above, the artist was actually present during the coronation. While the painting has some differences from the actual coronation, he made sure to add his self-portrait, symbolizing his allegiance to the crown. 

Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli

The Adoration of the Magi with Hidden self-portrait of Botticelli

Renaissance artists often painted catholic and biblical stories either on their own will or as commissioned works. Botticelli was no exception and created this painting around 1475. It follows the gospel where three Magi visit the baby Jesus at the time of his birth.

A close-up of The Adoration of the Magi with Hidden self-portrait of Botticelli

There was a common practice during the Italian Renaissance to paint members of important Florentine families as Magi. In this case, Sandro Botticelli depicted members of the Medici family as the three Magi. There are in fact several other Medici family members included in the painting. 

The Adoration of the Magi with Hidden self-portrait of Botticelli next to the patron of the painting

You can spot Botticelli standing at the extreme right of the painting as a blonde man, looking directly at the viewers. This was a common Botticelli pose for most of his self-portraits. What makes it even more interesting is that the artist not only painted himself but also his patron for the painting. He is a white-haired man in a light blue robe as part of the group next to the artist. Just like the artist, he is also looking in the viewer’s direction while pointing at himself, as if underlining his role.

Hidden Self-Portraits Have Always Amused Viewers

Sneaking in their self-portraits was a common practice among artists during the Italian Renaissance period. Signing an artwork was not a common practice for a long time in art history, hence most artists added their faces as special signatures to the work. If you have come this far, then you know some of the other reasons too that drove artists to incorporate hidden self-portraits in their work.

Regardless of their reasons, these self-portraits have always been a reason for amusement among viewers. They are enigmatic and can elicit numerous questions in their mind. They are a viewer’s chance to see the creator of the work and try to connect with them beyond their art.

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