Artists & their ^ Hidden Self-Portraits

Artists & their ^ Hidden Self-Portraits



Portraiture has long been an essential and significant genre for artists. It is believed that portraiture dates back as far as 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, before the invention of photography where it served as a means of preserving memory or elevating those in power.

The Renaissance period marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of portrait painting. Artists found themselves inundated with commissions from churches, patrons, and private collectors, leading to a flourishing of portraiture across frescoes, murals, and personal collections. Amidst this artistic renaissance, a new trend emerged: the self-portrait.

In addition to capturing the likenesses of others, artists began to turn their attention inward, exploring their own identities and placing themselves at the forefront of their compositions. This shift towards self-portraiture added a new and playful dimension to the genre, offering artists a means of self-expression and introspection amidst the bustling cultural landscape of the Renaissance.

Rembrandt | Biography, Art, Paintings, Self-Portraits, & Facts | Britannica

Fig. 1 Self-Portrait
Rembrandt Van Rjin, 1659
Oil on Canvas

Hidden Self-Portraits in Historical Paintings

It's often suggested that artists discreetly incorporate their own likenesses into historical scenes as a way to signify their involvement or perhaps to indulge in a touch of narcissism. These clandestine self-portraits can manifest as the artists portraying themselves as characters within the depicted historical narrative.

One may wonder whether these covert self-representations unintentionally reflect a narcissistic impulse, while others argue that they serve as a method of imprinting a personal touch onto their creations. Regardless of the interpretation, these self-portraits add depth and intrigue to the artworks they inhabit.

The Last Supper

Fig. 2 The Last Supper 
Leonardo Da Vinci, 1495-198
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy

One such example would be Leonardo da Vinci's iconic masterpiece, "The Last Supper." Amidst the solemn scene depicting Jesus and his twelve disciples, speculation abounds that Da Vinci inserted his own likeness among the figures. Remarks from close friends of Da Vinci and critics suggests that he may have portrayed himself as James, one of the disciples, subtly integrating his presence into the narrative of the painting (Mussio, 2023).

The School of Athens, by Raphael.

Fig. 3 The School of Athens
Raphael, 1509-1511
Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Similarly, in Raphael's renowned fresco, "The School of Athens," commissioned for the Vatican Palace, the artist is believed to have included his own image among the illustrious gathering of ancient Greek philosophers, scientists and mathematicians such as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates (Stewart, 2022). Amidst the intellectual discourse depicted in the scene, Raphael's self-portrait is peeking out at the viewer, subtly asserting his presence among the luminaries of history.

Raphael looking out towards the audience.

Fig. 4 Raphael in The School of Athens
Raphael, 1509-1511
Apostolic Palace, Vatican City


Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. David with the head of Goliath

Fig. 5 David with the Head of Goliath
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1609-1610

Known as the master of dark and light, Caravaggio's "David with the Head of Goliath" showcases the artist's skill mastery in capturing emotions and dramatic intensity. Created in the early 17th century, this iconic painting depicts the biblical tale of David, the young shepherd who bravely defeated the Philistine giant Goliath. It is believed that Caravaggio depicted himself as the beheaded Goliath while his young assistant as David. 

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, 1887

Fig. 6  Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Oil on Canvas

This enduring Renaissance principle that "every painter paints himself" has persisted throughout the centuries among artists, whether subtly depicting themselves in historical scenes, commissions by patrons or intentionally including themselves as the main subject matter likened to Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits, Frida Kahlo and many others.

Keen to learn more about portraiture and how you can draw and paint your own portrait or your loved ones?

Discover LACA's long-term art program: where you’ll have a chance to create your very own self-portrait.


Zöllner, F. (January, 2016). “Ogni pittore dipinge sè". Leonardo da Vinci and "automimesis". Retrieved from Research Gate:

Mussio, G. (16 February, 2023). Retrieved from Walks of Italy:

Foria, J. (26 September, 2019). CNN . Retrieved from

Stewart, J. (21 March, 2022). The Story Behind Raphael’s Masterpiece ‘The School of Athens’. Retrieved from My Modern Met.


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