Art as Memoir
ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How is a self-portrait like a memoir?

Common Core Standards

RL.9-10.7. Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment
RI.9-10.7. Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.
SL.9-10.2. Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source.
L.9-10.5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Suggested Student Objectives

  • Understand how artists create narratives
  • Identify and explain the artists' use of symbolism, characterization, and imagery to create memoir
  • Apply literary elements and techniques to portraits to "read" the text for interpretation
  • Analyze a work of art using strategies of argument to defend their interpretations

Suggested Additional Readings

How is a self-portrait like a memoir?: This is a slide show of artists self-portraits presented on Google
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at an early age (1628)
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669)
Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (1939)
Jacob Lawrence, Self-Portrait (1977)
Gustave Courbet, The Desperate Man (self-portrait) (1843)
Louisa Matthiasdottir, Self-Portrait with Dark Coat (no date)
Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait (1907)

Resource Links

Rembrandt van Rijn: Life and Work
The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo
The Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Center
Gustave Courbet Biography
Louisa Matthiasdottir: Selected Works
Pablo Picasso paintings, biography, and quotes


Self-Portraits: Have students focus on self-portraits comparing earlier works by Rembrandt with later ones. Have them discuss the idea that the self-portrait can be considered a "memoir without words". Follow this up with additional self-portraits. Students will draw their own self-portraits while looking into a mirror or at a photograph of their face. *May require assistance from an art teacher.

Word Painting: Have students "paint" their face with descriptive words. Point out that self-portraits are not just drawings of the face, but of emotions expressed by the face, such as surprise, joy, and worry. Students should create their "word painting" of at least three emotions (e.g. happy, sad, angry, disappointed, jealous, etc.) Then students will describe how they think their face will look in the future. Encourage students to choose an age at least 10 years in the future.


1. Compare Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at an early age with his Self-Portrait at the Age of 63. How has the artist depicted himself in both paintings? What visual clues is Rembrandt giving? How is he drawing the viewer into the work of art? Is he telling a story through these portraits - and if so, how? View the self-portraits of Jacob Lawrence and Pablo Picasso. How has self-portraiture changed, and remained the same, over time? What similarities can you find in these self-portraits?

2. Examine Courbet's The Desperate Man and Matthiasdottir's Self Portrait with Dark Coat. How has each artist chosen to depict himself or herself? What mood is each painter trying to depict, and what visual clues led you to discover this? Why do you believe that painters paint themselves - especially in the case of these two images? Is it similar to why people write memoirs? Are these self-portraits believable, do you think it is a faithful depiction of the painter? What do we mean by "faithful" in portraiture, or in writing?