Artists’ self-portraits are fascinating. Whereas some are clearly the result of close self-examination, others, such as those of George Jamesone or John Byrne, present the artists as they wanted to be seen, reminding us that portraiture can be used to construct images as well as faithfully reproduce likenesses. Some self-portraits may simply be technical experiments, with the artist using themselves as subjects to try out new methods and approaches. Youthful works by well-known artists are particularly intriguing - David Wilkie’s Self-portrait comes immediately to mind. With hindsight, it is tempting to read more into such images than we probably should.
This work by Joan Eardley was her final-year diploma piece for Glasgow School of Art. Sketchy and painted at great speed, it appears unfinished or severely distressed. Should it be seen as a tentative reflection of a young artist unsure of her own identity or what the future might hold? Or was it simply a quick stylistic exercise demonstrating her current interest in early Italian renaissance frescoes? Is it helpful to know her father committed suicide and she was herself prone to depression? Ultimately, each viewer will interpret the painting in their own way, although several facts belie the idea of this being either a tentative painting or a quick study in technique: the fact that the painting was presented as her diploma work, it won Eardley the Art School’s annual prize for portraiture, and was bought by her tutor in a year when her work as a whole was described as ‘remarkably powerful’ by the outgoing Principal.