<em>Self-Portrait, Yawning</em>, Joseph Ducreux, before 1783. Oil on canvas, 45 x 35 in.

Self-Portrait, Yawning, Joseph Ducreux, before 1783. Oil on canvas, 45 x 35 in.

Nowadays, seeing a silly picture of a person is hardly unusual. Showing personality is a good thing.

Social customs weren’t quite the same in 18th-century France, when Joseph Ducreux painted this self-portrait. An official court painter, he was known for refined portraits of important figures such as Marie Antoinette. But he also created unusual depictions of himself in various emotional states.

The traditional portrait shows a subject at his or her primped and composed best: look at Goya’s commanding marquesa, Cézanne’s intellectual journalist, even Warhol’s Self-Portrait in Drag. Yet here we see the artist at his most informal, examining his own yawning face and gestures.

Self Portrait, Yawning: Detail of face and left hand / Joseph Ducreux
Does this portrait make you laugh? Yawn? Ponder the human body and psyche?

Does art have to be serious? If you were having your portrait done, would you prefer a traditional portrait—or a more offbeat one, like this?

Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours, offered daily at 4:00 p.m. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week.