Table of Content


1. Aristotle’s Concept of Essence

2. Likeness as
Representation of the Self

3. Wittgenstein’s
Concept of Family

4. Likeness as
of “self”

5. Master of Arts Art Exhibition




The Representation and Reality of the Self in Art

Chapter 2. Likeness as Representation of the Self

The thesis that self-portraits represent, or express, the essential self of the artist is founded on two assumptions:

(1) there is the essential self;

(2) the self can be visually represented as likeness.

In the previous chapter I demonstrated that the source of the hypothesis that there is an essential self can be found in Aristotle’s philosophy. What I will demonstrate next is that Aristotle’s philosophy can also be claimed as the source of the hypothesis that self can be represented as likeness.

James Douglas Breckenridge found in classical Greek sculpture and philosophy the source of what he calls “true portraiture” - portraiture which prefers depicting the individual over the superimposed ideal. His thesis is that a favorable intellectual atmosphere was necessary before the “true” portrait, the individualized likeness could be created. [1] Breckenridge doesn’t claim that the artists were students of philosophy, but that philosophers reflected some general consensus of ideas on such matters as the significance of the individual or the character of visual reality itself. [2] He argues that the intellectual position which yielded such portraits was most clearly formulated in terms of Aristotle’s metaphysics. [3]

In his analysis, Breckenridge compares sculpted portraits of Plato and Aristotle. While the portrait of Plato uses superficial physical likeness, the portrait of Aristotle uses the external physical form to evoke the internal life of the man. [4] Breckenridge’s thesis is that the difference in approach to the portrayal of these two individuals may relate to the shift in Greek thought from Plato’s idealism to Aristotle’s empiricism. [5]

Breckenridge’s analysis of Aristotle’s philosophy yields the conclusion that the only way in which the activity of the mind, or the feeling of the soul, can be apprehended, is through their effect on the physical appearance and movements of the body. In Breckenridge’s opinion Aristotle did not abandon the older conception of an unchangeable aspect of the personality, which Aristotle calls “mind”, in contrast to the body linked to the soul: “Since the complex here is the living thing, the body cannot be the actuality of the soul, it is the soul which is the actuality of a certain kind of body. (…) Soul is an actuality of formulable essence of something that possesses potentiality of being besouled.” [6] Such an attitude toward physical reality was necessary for the development of portraiture. [7]

Therefore, Breckenridge calls “Aristotelian” such an attitude toward portraiture in which accurate representation of particular individual likeness is more important than creation of idealized beauty. We can find the same “Aristotelian” approach to portraiture in the famous self-portraits of Holland’s great painter, Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt painted, etched and drew his likeness at least seventy-five times over more than forty years, capturing his transformation from a youth to an old man. He repeatedly altered his image with costumes and dramatic light, sometimes acting as a character from historical paintings and Biblical stories. The exact number of Rembrandt’s self-portraits is a matter of contention, but it seems that he depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty paintings, about thirty-two etchings, and seven drawings. [8]

The special quality of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and portraits in general, is founded in his ability to create an image of the individual features of the sitter and create a strong psychological presence. At the time when other artists were painting idealized figures, Rembrandt was painting individuals.

Art historians disagree on the motivation behind Rembrandt’s numerous self-portraits. Some theories explaining Rembrandt’s self-portraits as a commercial venture, because self-portraits were sellable at that time. [9] Another explains self-portraits as a result of the practice of using oneself as a model, which does not require hiring a model. In the context of my thesis the most important theory is that Rembrandt’s self-portraits were attempts to represent the essential self.

There are no primary sources from which we can ascertain Rembrandt’s perception of "personality" and "self" save his portraits and self-portraits. Most scholars up to about twenty years ago interpreted Rembrandt’s remarkable series of self-portraits as a sort of visual diary, a forty-year exercise in self-examination. [10]

Jeanne Ivy in her analysis of genre of self-portraits says, “For all artists, the self-portrait is an exploration, an opportunity to see beyond the image in the mirror and begin to search into the soul (…) Each portrait is an exploration of the self.” [11] She goes on to praise Rembrandt’s achievement: “While Dürer and Parmigianino used the canvas to reflect their physical appearance, later artists such as Rembrandt and van Gogh took the self-portrait to a deeper level. Rembrandt created vast amounts of self-portraits through intensive self-study. Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother, “In Rembrandt’s is more than nature, it is a kind of revelation.” Rembrandt’s self-portraits delve deeply into the psyche, they show a complex personality, strong emotions, and a chronicle of circumstances through life.” [12]

Discussing the self-portrait Rembrandt painted in 1628, Susan Fegley Osmond notes that it was “a meditation on shadow and substance both physical and metaphysical; it seems to say that ultimately "I" am a mystery, the unknowable… Even to oneself the inmost soul is a mystery.” [13] She is assuming that there is an “inner soul”, self, and that even if its representation is beyond reach of an image, its existence is not in question.

Comparing Rembrandt’s traditional portraits to contemporary portrait painted by Chuck Close, Linda Nochlin states that there is no representation of the essential self in Rembrandt’s self-portraits and portraits -- just clever usage through staging and lighting of the figure deceiving the audience that there is an essential self: “Rembrandt is not a realist but a trickster, tricking you into thinking that Jan Nix pulling on his glove is the essential, the profound, the transcendent Jan Nix, quintessential Dutch-burgher-with-a-soul, the artist’s dazzling technique seducing you with a few well-placed shadows around the eyes, the meaningful glance, the astute concatenation of glazes around the mouth. All Rembrandt’s sitters look deep and soulful and surely they weren’t: this was just Rembrandt’s signature style: you paid your guilder and you got your profundity.” [14]

I agree with the position that Rembrandt’s self–portraits do not represent the essential Self. In my opinion the interpretation of self-portraits as representation of the essential self is false, because it is based on the false assumption that there is an essential self. I will next discuss Wittgenstein’s refutation of essence.


1. ibid., 14.

2. ibid., 123.

3. James Douglas Breckenridge, Likeness, Conceptual History of Ancient Portraiture (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 120-128.

4. ibid., 120.

5. ibid., 120.

6. Aristotle, De anima, II 2 (414a)

7. James Douglas Breckenridge, Likeness, Conceptual History of Ancient Portraiture (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 123.

8. Susan Fegley Osmond, “Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits” [article on-line] (The Mind and I Magazine, Washington, : News World Communications, Inc., 2000, accessed 9 March 2002); available from; Internet.

9. ibid.

10. ibid.

11. ibid.

12. Jeanne Ivy, “The exploration of Self: What artist find when they search in the mirror” [article on-line] (Baltimore, Maryland: The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, accessed 9 March 2002); available from; Internet.

13. ibid.

14. Linda Nochlin, “On Nancy (1968)” [article on-line] (Art in America, 1999, accessed 9 March 2002); available at; Internet.


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