Each week, we bring you the backstory of a work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team. 

David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Caravaggio

by Sara Robertson, Curator

Long before the selfie, there was the self-portrait. But while the selfie is, more often than not, self-celebratory, the self-portrait—a long, rich and complex artistic tradition—is about self-appraisal. It’s a tradition that stretches from the classical era—seen in the works of Raphael and Rembrandt—to the modern age (think of Andy Warhol’s colorful and performative representations of himself).

For the artist, acting as one’s own muse can be revealing. Vincent van Gogh, who painted over 40 self-portraits, wrote to his brother: “People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation.” For the viewer, the self-portrait can infuse a work with a deeper insight, one that allows us to see behind the mask, and into the eyes and mind of an artist.

Michelangelo Caravaggio created masterful and often provocative works of art, and from what it seems, he lived an even more provocative life. Orphaned at a young age, Caravaggio grew into an extremely talented but troubled individual, one who would often drink heavily and get into more than a few brawls; his violent nature eventually lead him to kill a man in a duel. The facts and reasoning behind the murder still aren’t clear to this day, but Caravaggio did flee Rome and never returned. In fact, he died only four years later. Before this, he created David with the Head of Goliath, 1606, one of his most well-known paintings, and one of art history’s most interesting self portraits.

While artists often create self-portraits and include themselves within the scenes they create, it is not as common for artists to depict themselves as a dead figure in their work like Caravaggio did in “David with the Head of Goliath.” David holds the severed head of Goliath, who Caravaggio painted as himself, in front of the viewer. There is no censorship shown in Caravaggio’s depiction of the dead Goliath, as you can see in the gruesome details. This is particularly intriguing when the head is Caravaggio’s own likeness. Some scholars say that this could be a window into the way Caravaggio viewed himself at the time. Perhaps after his crime, and a tumultuous life, he regretted his actions and this was his way of showing “defeat.”

An even more complex theory is that Caravaggio depicted himself in both Goliath’s head and in the young David. This theory follows the idea that Caravaggio painted two portraits in the same scene to represent different stages of his life: his violent past as the youthful David holding a sword, and his rather bleak present as the lifeless head of Goliath.

Whether or not Caravaggio did, in fact, paint two self-portraits in one, or if he condemned himself as just Goliath, this painting remains to be one of his most interesting and discussed works.