Fiona Gruber reviews 'The Self-Portrait' by James Hall

Fiona Gruber reviews 'The Self-Portrait' by James Hall

The Self-Portrait: A cultural history

by James Hall

Thames & Hudson, £24.95 hb, 288 pp, 9780500239100

Fiona Gruber

Fiona Gruber

Fiona Gruber is a journalist and producer with twenty years experience writing and broadcasting across the arts as a commentator,


We live in a world obsessed with self-images. Thanks to digital photography and the Internet, we can all star in and manipulate the drama of our lives. But, as James Hall reminds us, artists have been experimenting with self-representation for centuries. From a quartzite stela of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s court sculptor Bak standing with his wife Taheri (c.1350 bce) to Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–95, which featured a tent, a mattress, and 102 appliquéd names, self-portraitists have always manipulated the way they have wanted to be seen, and have reflected or rejected prevailing mores and morals. More prosaically, most artists have made a self-portrait at one time or another, using themselves as models (for economic reasons) as a way of recording a gesture or to create a character.

While Hall draws a long bow in his inclusion of the obscure and the highly conceptual, his study, Egyptians aside, is firmly rooted in the Western Classical and Christian tradition. Saint Augustine wrote about the mirror of scripture and how the Bible showed both the divine plan and the path by which individuals could reform themselves; artists put themselves in the picture, often religious ones, to show their piety and also their temporal fidelity as courtiers to the rich and powerful.

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Published in May 2015, no. 371

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.