by James Hall. Thames & Hudson, April 2014. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9780500239100 (cl.), $35.00

Reviewed September 2014
Megan Halsband, Reference Librarian, Library of Congress, mhals@loc.gov

hallWhile numerous texts have been written about many of the individual artists (and their self-portraits) discussed in Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, the scope of the text is unique, tracing the development of self-portraiture from the religiousness of the Middle Ages to the self-consciousness of contemporary art. Organized chronologically with a prelude and ten chapters, art historian and critic James Hall traces the broad history of the self-portrait in artistic practice from antiquity to present day in this heavily illustrated publication (120 illustrations, 109 in color). Focusing almost exclusively on Western art, Hall contextualizes the selected artists and self-portraits with extensive research, providing footnotes and a selected bibliography.

Many canonical self-portrait paintings are included in Hall’s discussion (Jan Van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Diego Velázquez, Vincent Van Gogh), though less well known works and examples of self-portraits in numerous forms, including manuscripts, prints, sculpture, and later photographs, are also featured. This inclusion of lesser known artists and media is one of the strengths of Hall’s research, and the historic context provided demonstrates his extensive knowledge. Since this is a single volume, rather than an encyclopedia or series, there are necessarily, though sometimes not obviously, artists and themes that Hall leaves out; there are no illustrations by Pablo Picasso, for example. The text includes select female artists, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kauffman, and Frida Kahlo, but could have included additional artists, such as Judith Leyster, Mary Beale, Mary Cassatt, or Jenny Saville, among others. Also conspicuously absent are almost any examples of non-Western, non-white self-portraiture; only two non-Western artists are mentioned at the very end of the chapter on modern and contemporary works: Zhang Huan and Tatsumi Orimoto. This exclusion within a historic context is not unusual, however Hall’s exclusion of numerous contemporary artists, such Yasumasa Morimura, Nikki S. Lee, or Yinka Shonibare, is problematic. Although the book is fascinating in large part because it brings together genres and time periods that are often separately examined and discussed within other art historical publications, the omissions that Hall makes show that this text is not necessarily a stand-alone resource, and researchers and students seriously studying self-portraiture as a genre should incorporate additional sources.

This book references topics and tropes which should be familiar to advanced art history scholars but presents unique juxtapositions that make for an interesting read, even to those familiar with the artists and theories presented. Hall’s dense but clear writing-style and numerous footnotes will help those readers who are less familiar with the subject matter. This text is recommended for academic and research libraries, as well as libraries that serve studio programs.