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Mary Cassatt, Autumn (Profile of Lydia Cassatt). 1880. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris.

Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia shared an apartment in Paris. Lydia frequently modeled for her. This scene is rich with autumn colors set in a Parisian garden.

FOCUS ON The Self-Portrait: Rembrandt van Rijn, Gustave Courbet, Vincent van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo

The self-portrait is one of the enduring genres of painting. Rembrandt (Figure 4-18) painted himself again and again, beginning in his youth and continuing into his old age, each time revealing a great deal of the inner man. He left us a changing picture of age and station, particularly as he ran into financial difficulties that stressed him emotionally and physically. Rembrandt made approximately a hundred self-portraits, and this one, at age fifty-three, is among the most poignant. He had been enormously successful as a painter. His commissions, personal and public, had made him a wealthy man, but just a few years before this painting he proved a poor businessman and was financially ruined. His color palette in this painting is limited to earth tones, subdued, controlled, and limited. His gaze is steady, almost directly at the viewer. The implication of his expression is difficult to interpret.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat. 1887. Oil on cardboard, 15.9 × 12.8 inches. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

In his last years in Paris, Vincent van Gogh produced a number of powerful self-portraits. He experimented with a strong brushstroke influenced by pointilist painters like Georges Seurat. This summer portrait emphasizes the intensity of the season and connects him to the natural straw colors of the countryside despite his living in the city. Self-portraits such as this imply a strong desire for self-examination and seem to bare the artist’s soul.

Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most famous muralists, was never faithful to her and their marriage was marked by many stormy arguments and struggles. She was involved with the Communist party in Mexico protesting war and inequities. She devoted herself to attempts to help others. Her Self-Portrait with Monkey was painted during a time of stress, after her marriage began to crumble. She was divorced in the next year and re-married Rivera in 1940. In October 1938 she gave a major show of her work at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and sold many of her paintings. This painting was commissioned after that show by A. Conger Goodyear who was then president of the Museum of Modern Art and who had tried to buy another painting at the Levy Gallery of Kahlo and her pet monkey Fulang-Chang, but it had been sold. The monkey may be symbolic or not, but Kahlo painted it in several of her portraits. The leaves behind her are derived from Mexican folk art. Kahlo looks directly at the viewer, but Fulang-Chang’s straight-on gaze is not on the viewer; instead, it is distracted, or distant. She reveals herself as she was, plain, unadorned by make-up, honest.

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