Between 1842 and 1855 Courbet executed about twenty self-portraits, both painted and drawn, in a process that he likened to writing his autobiography. Self-portraits dominated his artistic production during this period, and, appropriately, his first accepted Salon painting was Self-Portrait with Black Dog, exhibited in 1844. Courbet's scrutiny of himself is steeped in the Romantic emphasis on self-exploration, a notion advocated by the literary and artistic circles that the young artist frequented in Paris. The self-portraits on view reveal his evolution from an early exploration of Romantic, troubadour-inspired imagery to the Realist aesthetic that would define his career.
Courbet assumes a range of personae in his self-portraits, posing as a musician, a wounded lover, and, most dramatically, as a man driven to the edge of sanity in The Desperate Man and The Man Mad with Fear. In addition to role-playing, many of the self-portraits reflect Courbet's stylistic emulations of works by Renaissance and Baroque masters, especially Titian and Rembrandt. Doubtless, too, he sought to evoke Rembrandt's precedent as a self-portraitist.
In 1855 Courbet exhibited a group of these self-portraits in the retrospective of his own work that he staged at his Pavilion of Realism. Confronted by so many incarnations of the artist, the critic Maxime du Camp complained, "Courbet waving, Courbet walking . . . Courbet everywhere, Courbet forever."