The “Art” of Hair Loss: Hairless Subjects in Paintings




Artist George Tooker, once said, “Painting is an attempt to come to terms with life.” Therefore, if painting is about coming to terms with life, then it should reflect one of the basic facts of life: not everyone sports a full mane of hair.
And indeed, while we often think of paintings as depicting men and women with glorious heads of hair, the truth is that there’s a wider range of representation of the not-fully-haired among the oils and pastels than might first be thought.
This isn’t a new trend. Many ancient paintings depict subjects with some degree of hair loss. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that almost all ancient Egyptian art features people with hair issues because of the simple fact that most ancient Egyptians – men and women alike – shaved their heads to better deal with the intense heat and the annoying insects that liked to nestle in the hair. So when you see a painting of a fetching ancient Egyptian from the period, know that underneath the head covering is a beautiful shining dome.

Hair loss, religion and paintings

There’s another group that is often represented in many of the bald-inclined paintings from earlier ages: Holy Men. Whether Buddhist priests or Catholic monks, there is a long history of certain orders requiring members to shave their heads, either fully or in the circular form that leaves the “monk’s cap” look. Religious figures were very popular as subjects during many periods of history, for various reasons, including genuine veneration and the restriction that artwork should glorify God and his works.
While many of these paintings depict religious figures that are rather obscure, others focus on some major players. Rembrandt’s beautiful “Two Old Men Disputing” shows a high-foreheaded disciple Peter and a hair-thinning apostle Paul debating some unknown sacred point. Leonardo da Vinci’s paints a “St. Jerome” with a mixture of pain and beauty that makes an indelible impression. And Giotto di Bondone’s 13th century “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata” marks an important moment in that figure’s history.
Of course, the secular had their fair share of hair challenged models as well. Titian revealed in his self-portrait of 1562 that his forehead is decidedly high, leading one to suspect that there’s quite a bit of scalp beneath the cap that perches on the back of his head. Da Vinci’s “Self-Portrait 2” also reveals a master with a receding hairline, something that also seems to be true in some of Van Gogh’s self portraits.
The irrepressible – and delightfully bald – Benjamin Franklin was a popular subject of painters in the late 1700s, and signs of Queen Elizabeth I’s tendency to shave her forehead can be found in many paintings of the legendary ruler. (Whether Elizabeth was actually bald, as has often been stated, seems to be an area open for discussion, but her fondness for a very high forehead – and the intelligence it was thought to indicate – is beyond doubt.)
As we move into the 19th century, we come across one of the most famous examples of a painting with a bald subject – Edvard Munch’s iconic “The Scream,” familiar as a subject for countless parodies. The original still possesses enormous power even after all the take-offs, something which can surely be attributed to the artist’s very wise decision to use a hairless man as his expressionistic inspiration.

Hair loss, cubism and modern art

Cubist fans can take comfort in the fact that Picasso didn’t ignore the bald, as can be seen in such works as “Portrait of Ambrose Vollard” and the influential “Guernica.” Cezanne devotees know that his self-portraits reveal a very fine pate, and George Grosz’s paintings, including “Germany: A Winter’s Tale” and “The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse” feature bald subjects in the same disturbing light that he uses to examine every person.
Other 20th century masters such as Edward Hopper (“The Hotel Lobby”), Salvador Dali (“Portrait of the Artist’s Father”), Frido Kahlo (“Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill”) and Diego Rivera (“Man Controller of the Universe”) also make important contributions to the category.
Among living painters, there are any number who have tilled this particular stretch of field with wonderful results.
Brenda Zlamany has created a stir with her series of paintings of bald men, many of them art critics. Both sensual and powerful, these paintings, to quote critic John Yau, “implicitly echo the inherent features of the male sex organ,” drawing upon a long tradition of equating baldness with increased virility.
Contemporary Chinese artist Du Xinjian almost exclusively features bald men, women and children in his work, which has a keen ability to combine the surreal with the natural and displays an impressive and commendable mastery of technique. Czechoslovakian Jiri Sopko’s work also abounds in bald heads, emotionless figures who gain power from the contrast of the intensely bright colors that surround them.
And Lucian Freud’s portfolio includes a significant number of portraits of bald men. Many of them, such as “Man Smoking” or “Man in a Sport Shirt,” use rather ordinary men, but his nude series with model Leigh Bowery – a man of girth and size as well as baldness – have a power and dimension that startle.
The work of these and other more contemporary painters is especially encouraging. They are approaching the subject of baldness with the same courage, authority and audacity that they approach other subjects, with the goal of showing all aspects of humanity in all its glory. This trend will continue to lead to more varied and interesting representations of people with pates.