Like many artists, Spilliaert was a willing model for his own work and produced many self-portraits between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-eight. His early self-portraits dating from 1902–3 faithfully capture the bitter and rough appearance of his tortured face. He explored the potential offered by the genre in a very intense way through to 1907–8, a seminal period during which most of these works were produced.
Spilliaert always depicts himself in a dark jacket and white collar, rather than as a bohemian artist. He sometimes opts for tight framing that accentuates his intense gaze as he pursues his self-scrutiny. At other times, by contrast, he positions himself in a much larger space—the creative space—often rendered oppressive by an interplay of interlocking frames and repeated straight lines which imprison him like a cage. He portrays himself surrounded by familiar but unsettling objects: corpse-like coats, clocks and calendars recalling the inexorable passage of time, and the abyss of a mirror poised to devour his fragile image. Although he occasionally depicts himself at his easel, he is less interested in presenting himself as an artist than in exploring his identity in silence and solitude. This search for the self leads the artist to create a monstrous distortion similar to a nocturnal hallucination: the sleepwalker self-portrait.