Blog / 2012 / Why People Commission Portraits of Themselves

November 19, 2012

There’s this idea that if you want a portrait of yourself, you must be some kind of a megalomaniac, but that’s a very superficial read on the situation. There are lots of possible motivations for commissioning a painting of yourself.

painted double portrait of a couple, commissioned
Gwenn Seemel
Curnis and Becky
2010
acrylic on canvas
17 x 26 inches (combined dimensions)

In my near-decade as a portraitist, the top reason why people commission paintings of themselves is to get a spouse to sit for me. In other words, someone wants a portrait of her-his partner, but the partner won’t play unless they’re both being painted.

portrait diptych of a married couple
Gwenn Seemel
Mike and Laurie
2010
acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches and 20 x 20 inches

Running a close second to this is the desire to have a complete pair. One spouse won’t sit without the other because that wouldn’t represent who they are. This can also happen with families: one person wants everyone in the family painted and so it seems wrong for the client not to commission her or his own portrait as well.

painted portrait of a daughter and her aging mother
Gwenn Seemel
Pat and Eleanor
2011
acrylic on canvas
24 x 24 inches

Along those same lines, a person may commission a portrait of her or him self as a way to honor a special relationship. The painting isn’t about the person doing the commissioning: it’s about the interaction between the client and the other subject.

commissioned portrait
Gwenn Seemel
Dick
2010
acrylic on canvas
16 x 14 inches

Sometimes people commission me to paint their portraits simply because they like my work.

painted portrait of a woman with fantastic glasses and flowers in the background
Gwenn Seemel
Margo
2007
acrylic on canvas
24 x 24 inches

Or it can be about having the experience of sitting for portrait.

painted portrait of white man
Gwenn Seemel
Jon
2006
acrylic on canvas
16 x 15 inches

A self-commissioned portrait can also be a way for someone to commemorate a transition that she or he is going through or to mark some other kind of special moment.

commissioned portrait of lovely person
Gwenn Seemel
Jeannette
2009
acrylic on canvas
48 x 34 inches

In this case, the subject commissioned me to paint her portrait because she knew it would make me more likely to accept another commission, a painting of her deceased husband. By the time I met Jeannette, I had pretty much decided I wouldn’t paint people I couldn’t meet, but she hooked me with the story of her relationship to this man and sealed the deal by agreeing to sit for me too.

painted portrait of an elderly man
Gwenn Seemel
Bud
2007
acrylic on canvas
21 x 17 inches

In fact, this genre often has to do with mortality. For example, this client wanted to be able to give the gift of a painted portrait to his family after he passed away.

painted portrait of a man with a long white beard
Gwenn Seemel
Michael
2006
acrylic on bird’s eye piqué
24 x 18 inches

Finally, a self-commissioned portrait can be about joy—pure joy or joy in the face of sadness. The subject of this portrait commissioned it to celebrate the beard he’d had his whole adult life right before he lost it to chemotherapy.

Portraiture has long been associated with narcissism, but there’s not really a good reason for that. If anything, the self-centered reputation of the genre has to do with its beginnings as a way for royalty to reinforce its importance, and thinking of portraiture in that context skips over the more recent and much more interesting evolution of the genre as it came to be embraced by individuals living in democracies.

In the end, a portrait is a window into how the world sees you, and anyone who’s not at least a little curious about that is probably a bit of a sociopath.

UPDATE

September 11, 2017

There’s now a video that explains why people commission portraits in general.

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