Surprising though it may be, self-portraits weren’t invented with the creation of the first iPhone. Neither did they become popular when the first hairy-knuckled Reality Star staggered out of the jungle to pose for a little self-adoration. Rather, they’ve been around as long as there have been artists. Prior to the Renaissance, selfies were a rarity in art; however, with the advent of inexpensive mirrors and interest in the individual, artists quickly turned to their most readily available model–the self. One could make the case it was that a burgeoning European upper-class society allowed for the insertion of open vanity, but self love has never been the artist’s primary motive.
Perhaps the first well-known selfie is Jan van Eyck, painted in 1433. We believe it’s van Eyck, among other reasons, because he’s not wearing a turban but a chaperone, a hood with the ends tied up on his head, perhaps to prevent getting pain on them. He looks intently from the canvas, considering himself as do we. Van Eyck also painted a portrait of his wife. Perhaps they were motivated by vanity, but an equally reasonable assumption was he did the works as a means to promote himself as a portrait painter.
Perhaps wealthy patrons needed validation that hanging one’s portrait in the home was an acceptable bit of vanity in an age still dominated by religion. With family portraits then passed from generation to generation, not only did the practice become acceptable, but patrons of the arts were keen to see the great masters’ own images as rendered by them.
Leonardo’s famous sketch in red chalk has long been considered a selfie. Some scholar-cynics go so far as point out the symmetry between this autoritratto and the Mona Lisa as evidence that the great Master shored up his most famous work by using his own face to model at least the Mona Lisa’s bone structure.
Heresy, surely, of a sort expected only in 21st-century vainglory. But it is not vanity, is it? After all, models eat, and people who eat wish to be paid for their works. As a result, many artists practiced capturing expressions, mood, or technique using themselves as models. One such master was Rembrandt van RIjn, whose many self-portraits allow us to see him grow in age and skill. His 1628 shows his early use of light and shadow, which will mark his art throughout his career. In 1630, he renders a cartoonish sketch, probably to capture an expression to be used in a work. (Click to enlarge images in any gallery below.)
Once the great ones had rendered themselves for posterity, any painter worth his/her salt would do the same. There were no cameras, so the artist was free to work his magic as he saw fit. Some surely used the art for self-promotion, painting portraits in the style they would later sell to other clients. (A little flattery perhaps, and a 5 o’clock shadow to show one’s masculinity.)
Others, like Renoir, composed simpler self-portraits, rendering himself much as he would appear in real life. Gone was the confident gaze from the canvas of van Eyck or the flamboyance of de La Tour for a humble, almost shy peek from his hat and bushy facial hair. It is a small change, but a significant one.
Contemporaneous with Renoir was Vincent Van Gogh, whose initial self-portraits mirrored his contemporary’s passionless stare from the canvas. Given Van Gogh’s turbulent and declining mental health, however, his portraits become a testament of his artistic and personal change from realism to quasi-surrealism. In 1887, all looked fine, except perhaps an overly intense stare in one of the works. A mere two years later, the backgrounds are vivid and so is Van Gogh.
Van Gogh documented his own spiral into illness. Other painters with physical and/or mental disabilities did the same, and still do. Frido Kahlo, whose back was broken in 3 places in a streetcar accident, documented her own pain and confinement via her selfies, which comprised fully 1/3 of her works. She didn’t paint flattering portraits; rather, she often made herself less attractive than she was in real life. These weren’t her painting of what she was; they were what she felt.
The 20th century was a breakthrough, of sorts. No longer content with just doing selfies, artists began using themselves as tests for their own styles. They not only created the art, they became the art. As Picasso’s autoretratos are realistic when he is realistic. In his Blue Period, he paints a blue self-portrait. In 1907, as he begins to play with Cubism, he becomes Cubist. He is his work.
With the dawning of photography as its own art form, photographers take up the mantle. We begin to see the artist for whom he truly is.
No longer can the artist lie, for the camera does not lie … or does it? Like their predecessors, some shoot themselves in painful truth, like Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier. Arbus’s life was filled with pain, ending in her suicide. Her self-portraits are equally detached, as though she were viewing herself for the first time. Maier, a street photographer, went back to the roots of the selfie, shooting in mirrors, but in her beloved streets.
Other photogs shoot themselves as they work, with models, with actresses, or in Warhol’s case, with his own frightful self. So next time you see the odd Duckface mirror selfie, remember its long tradition. It is truly the art of seeing the artist within.