Why do artists make self-portraits? Why would someone take the time to create a work of art that merely resembles themselves? To answer this, one must understand the famous artists of the past, both visual and literary. When analyzing a self-portrait, one notices that it often goes beyond the visual characteristics of the author. Minute details that can be easily overlooked frequently delve into the artist’s personality and can sometimes make the viewer look deeper into themselves. To answer the why of self-portraiture, one must understand the how. By comparing the literary elements of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, to the artistic techniques utilized by legendary artists in their self-portraits, one learns the reason of why someone would create a portrait of themselves.
When making a self-portrait, it takes much more than simply looking in the mirror and copying what one sees either in text or through art. To make a self-portrait, the artist must look into themselves and select their most important qualities that they want to show to the world. Joyce’s original version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, known as Stephen Hero, was comprised of over nine hundred pages and his siblings were major characters. In the revision that made it his portrait, he decided to get rid of a few hundred of those pages and to focus exclusively on the psychological growth of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus. While it must have been difficult for Joyce to completely take out a majority of his work from the published product, the more precise version gave readers a true sense of Joyce and what moments in his life affected his process of growth from a young poet to an accomplished writer. The selective process is one of the most important elements of self-portraiture.
Another important aspect of self-portraits is the use of color; in literary portraits, the use of diction. The best way to describe the importance of the two was explained by Vincent van Gogh, “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily, in order to express myself, more forcefully.” Van Gogh understood the importance of colors and how they can affect the overall message of a self-portrait. In a portrait that he painted right after being admitted into a psychiatric hospital (image 1), the background is dark blue and his shirt is almost the same color. Because the shirt does not have a definite outline, it gives the illusion that he is fading into the dark abyss of the background. After spending more time in the hospital, he painted another portrait (image 2). Even though the actual image of him is almost identical to the previous portrait, it evokes a completely different set of emotions because of the lighter colors he used. The light blue tones make the painting feel relaxed and calm whereas in the previous painting, the dark color makes it feel ominous and depressing. Van Gogh’s quote can also be applied to Joyce’s writing. In the years after Stephen’s childhood, he never just states what is going on in the world around him; his diction and perspective always affect it. The diction he uses not only describes his surroundings, but it describes him as well. His choice of diction gives the reader insight into his personality and his opinion without directly stating it. When talking about prostitutes, he has two very different views. In chapter two, when Stephen is still innocent and beginning to experiment with rebellion, his encounter with the prostitute is very emotional and almost loving. He refers to her as “a young woman dressed in a long pink gown” and uses phrases like “warm and lightsome,” “embraced him gaily,” and “tears of joy and relief shone in his delighted eyes” to show his happiness and comfort in the presence of the woman. In the third chapter, when Stephen is beginning to close himself off emotionally, he calls prostitutes “whores” and describes them...
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