Self-Portrait, 1898
Suzanne Valadon, French, 1865–1938
Oil on canvas
15 3/4 × 10 1/2 in. (40 × 26.7 cm)
John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection, gift of Audrey Jones Beck

Habits of Mind

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

Photo Shopping Self-Portraits

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • A week in portraits
  • Introduction to a Photoshop self-portrait lesson








Develop Grit

Connecting to the Work of Art

Unlike her contemporaries, Suzanne Valadon was not content to paint pretty pictures typical of the works of art of her time. While other artists often painted people and scenes of everyday life at the turn of the century, Valadon painted with uncompromising sharpness and brutality. In this self-portrait, the bold red shades convey a sense of drama and emotion. The vibrant colors, applied in broad, loose brushstrokes, do not passively depict light and shadow, but actively express the artist’s strong inner personality.


Valadon used dramatic colors to breathe life into her portrait with rough texture and depth. The strong lines of the painting are evidence of Valadon’s belief that drawing is basic to painting. She used thick black lines on the eyebrows and collar to create a sense of strength and stoicism. The cropped composition further emphasizes the strong personality of the artist by filling the canvas with her image. The slightly off-center figure looks at the viewer with a piercing gaze. This challenging stare, coupled with the red tones used throughout the work, creates a powerful image.


For her portraits, Valadon disregarded convention—painting both beautiful and homely women, clothed and nude, from working-class communities. Her use of color and her bold representation of female sexuality challenged traditional male concepts of femininity. Through her use of strong lines, bold colors, and the cropped view, she projects an image of a strong woman during a particularly male-dominated society.


Just as her paintings challenged the norms, so did the artist’s entry into the art world. At age fifteen, Valadon became a circus acrobat, but a trapeze accident ended her career a year later. She then found work as an artist’s model and began to observe and learn artists’ techniques. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a French artist with whom she was romantically involved, brought her work to the attention of another established artist, Edgar Degas, who consistently encouraged her to develop her artistic talent and soon started to buy her works. These artists and their circle of friends in Paris at the turn of the century greatly influenced Valadon and her art.


British artist and art critic Roger Fry coined the term Post-Impressionism in 1910 to describe the development of French art from the late 1880s. Like the Impressionists, artists from this school used vivid colors, thick applications of paint, distinctive brushstrokes, and real-life subject matter, but continued to experiment with new ways of painting through the use of geometrical forms, the distortion of form for expressive effect, and the use of unnatural or arbitrary color. Although Valadon used elements of impressionism, her simplification of form and broad areas of pure color is typical of the work of many Post-Impressionists.


  • What words would you use to describe the tone of this painting? How does the use of color and line add to the tone?
  • What features does the artist highlight? What does she underplay? Why do you think certain features, such as the figure’s eyebrows, stand out in comparison to the rest of the face?
  • Notice how the sitter stares at the viewer. How does that add to the mood of the work?
  • How would you describe the color palette? How do the colors contribute to the mood of the painting?
  • What previous associations do you have with the color red? How does the color red add to the tone of the work?
  • How the artist uses shadow and light to convey depth?
  • How does the darkness that surrounds the figures create a sense of mystery?
  • Notice how the composition is tightly cropped: What if the artist included more of the background?


  • Discuss how the artist prevents viewers from gathering contextual clues? Consider the background and lack of details.
  • How does the artist create a sense of mystery yet strength through within this work?
  • The title of this work is Self-Portrait. Knowing this fact, does this change your interpretation knowing the artist is depicting herself?
  • The artist attempted to convey texture and the inner life of the sitter through the various hues used in the painting. Do you believe he is successful at this? Explain your answer.
  • As a female artist working in a male dominated art society, how does the artist project an image of a strong woman through this work of art?
  • Explain how this work could be viewed as a challenge the traditional male constructions of femininity.

Questions to Ask

  • Describe the colors in this portrait. Do they look natural or unnatural? Why would the artist use colors like this?
  •  How would you describe this woman? What type of personality do you believe she has? Do you think she is pretty? What if I told you this was a self-portrait; how do you think this woman sees herself? Is she self-confident?
  • When you take Facebook photos, how do you portray yourself? What type of emotions do you show? What do you think this says about how you view yourself? How important is posing in portraits?


  • Start by studying proportion of the face. Day 1 of the week of portraits ask students to look at Valadon’s Self-Portrait. Students will be led to discuss whether or not she is painted in a flattering light.  Students will be asked to create a self-portrait a day for the rest of the week (4 in total) each using a different expression or different colors. Students will be encouraged to not try to make themselves look pretty or perfected. This will make them rework their ideas.
  • This could also be a history lesson. If paired with portraits of historical figures, students can deduce why each person was portrayed how they were. For example, portraits of George Washington show him looking very serious. There are bust portraits, full portraits, and the crossing the Delaware portrait. Students could use the skills they learned from this activity to hypothesize about what the artists were trying to portray when painting Washington.

Subject Matter Connection

Students are reluctant to rework their artwork. They get fixated on making one “perfect” artwork and then do not want to revisit it. Asking students to think about portraits in various ways will help them flex their creativity using one single subject. It also teaches patience. Their first or second portrait may not be their favorite, but with practice and trying a different angle, they may be able to make a much better piece of artwork.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider