Art in Exile: Hidden Portraits


Art in Exile: a blog series focused on introducing beauty into the social media stream during a season of self-quarantine, social distancing, and a global pandemic.

For this Art in Exile we’ll take a look at paintings which contain hidden portraits and self-portraits. Van Gogh struggled to find love. Here, the man beside the woman in the carriage wears his signature red beard. He wanted this life, but never had it. 

Van Gogh, Road with Cypresses, 1890, self-portrait in carriage with woman

In The Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli is the muted man, far right, looking at the viewer. When you see a painting in which a character is making direct eye contact with the viewer, this is often the artist himself/herself. 

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1475 (muted color, far right, looking at viewer)

Who is Rodin’s Thinker? He is Dante, author of The Inferno. This piece was made to sit atop a larger work called “The Gates of Hell.” Rodin wanted to capture Dante thinking about hell.  

Rodin, Thinker, Gates of Hell, Dante, 1917

Rembrandt’s, The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, featured the artist and his wife Saskia. Soon after he painted this, Saskia died and Rembrandt went bankrupt. Ironically, this was painted during a time when Rembrandt was living large, but on the verge of unthinkable loss. 

Rembrandt (w Saskia), The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, Self- Portrait, 1637, a few years before Saskia died in 1642 and Rembrandt went bankrupt

Raphael’s School of Athens, features at least three hidden portraits. Raphael himself (face only, looking at us) is at the far right. Michelangelo is leaning on a box, middle foreground. And DaVinci is in the red robe in the middle under the arch.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1509, with Raphael (face only, seated far right), Michelangelo (Seated, middle foreground), and DaVinci (Red robe in middle)

The “hidden portrait” in Van Gogh’s Prisoners Exercising in a Yard is not very hidden. Van Gogh painted this while he was living in an asylum for the mentally ill. It is claustrophobic, lonely, and cold, full of misery. Vincent looks at the viewer. 

Van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising in a Yard, 1890, Hidden Self Portrait, Painted while in an asylum

In David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio gave the severed head of Goliath his own facial features. The inscription on David’s sword says H-AS OS, an abbreviation of humilitas occidit superbiam, “Humility kills pride.” 

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609, Hidden Self Portrait in goliaths facial features

In Rembrandt’s, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, he painted himself as one of the disciples. He’s the one in the middle, looking at us. I wrote an essay about this painting. You can find here:

 Rembrandt, Storm on the Sea of Galilee, hidden self-portrait, in forground, wearing bule, looking at viewer

One last piece: Michelangelo painted one of his critics, who was offended by the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s nudity, into the ceiling, depicting him naked with donkey ears in hell. 

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Donkey in Hell, one of Michelangelo’s Critics

Russ Ramsey
Russ is a pastor and author living in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), and the Retelling the Story Series, featuring The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP, 2018). His personal mission is to communicate the truths of Scripture in accessible ways to people in process. Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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