500 SELF PORTRAITS
Julian Bell ( Phaidon, $ 44.99) The telltale three-quarter head, the oddly compelling glance, the hidden hand. Many of these self-portraits fit a classic format: the artist turned to face a mirror, painting hand hidden.
Although the first in this chronological mini-volume is an Egyptian carver who immortalised himself swigging beer in a papyrus boat (circa 2350BC), the big celebrities are all here. There is fascination in looking into the limpid chalk eyes of a 21-year- old Raphael, or the peevish glance of a middle-aged pauper named Rembrandt. Some have painted themselves in all their finery: 17th- century artist Judith Leyster slouches breezily in front of her easel in a snowy collar as wide as a hula hoop.
But most artists haven’t exactly gone for the equivalent of glam “selfies”. Dalí removed the bones from his face and hung what remained on crutches next to a slice of bacon. The 19th-century painter Courbet looks like Johnny Depp after a bad batch of smack, while Sargent, the great American fin de siècle flatterer, glares at us like a dyspeptic bank manager. Michelangelo is a flayed saint with a horror-movie mask face, and Caravaggio is a dripping severed head, mouth agape.
There are photographs and sculptures, frescoes and wood engravings, nearly all from Europe. But these are the most knowing and layered of portraits – great artists exploiting the rare luxury of pleasing themselves.