Since 2013, the word “selfie” has been included in dictionaries as an official word. Statistics claim 93 million selfies are taken every day, usually on smartphones, and uploaded on social media. Access to smartphones with front-facing cameras has allowed everyone to participate in this “selfie culture”, and the ability to filter or edit the photographs has encouraged people to express a different version of themselves.
Some may say selfies are a part of a self-obsessed culture, however, the concept dates back centuries, particularly in the form of self-expression. Google Arts & Culture have produced an online exhibition to explore How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie. There is evidence of “selfies” throughout all times and cultures, which has helped us learn about how people once looked, or at least how they perceived themselves, what they wore, how they lived and so forth.
It was not until the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance, that self-portraits became a trend. Portraits were common, however, artists mostly painted other people, usually on commission. The increase in self-portraits coincided with the availability of mirrors. Once expensive, mirrors were becoming cheaper and easier to get hold of, allowing even the poorest of painters to study their appearance.
The Early Renaissance also saw a change in painting technique. Before then, most paintings were done on walls and ceilings of buildings, but in the 15th century, the technique of panel painting began. Artists could now complete the artwork in their studio on wooden boards, which would later be positioned on the client’s walls. This also meant artists had access to surfaces on which they could experiment and produce work that they could later sell without a particular client in mind.
Artists were now freer to produce paintings for themselves as well as for their clients. With mirrors by their easels, many took the opportunity to depict themselves as the main subject. For some, this was a means of practising facial expressions, painting techniques and so forth, whereas, for others, it was a chance to express their personality, reveal who they were inside and demonstrate what they thought of their physical appearance.
Google Arts & Culture searched through several museums and galleries to find the best examples of self-portraits or “selfies” that also pinpoint the changes in style and the development of technology over time.
When looking at the history of self-portraits, there is no better place to start than with Rembrandt, who produced nearly 100 self-portraits. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter whose works depict a wide range of subject matter, such as landscapes, allegorical scenes, historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes, portraits and, of course, self-portraits. The latter are amongst his greatest triumphs and form a visual biography of his life, which was marked by youthful success and later financial hardship.
Of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, at least 40 are paintings and the rest etchings or drawings. These made up around 10% of Rembrandt’s artwork and were produced over forty years. As a result, Rembrandt documented his ageing process and he encouraged his students to make copies of the paintings to practice drawing people of different ages.
Rembrandt’s etchings and drawings are usually more playful than his paintings and were probably not intended for public consumption. These sketches often depict the artist pulling a silly face, as though he was practising drawing different facial expressions. Rembrandt also drew himself in fancy dress, often in clothes from previous centuries.
The oil paintings are more formal than Rembrandt’s drawings, although there is one of Rembrandt laughing, which dates to around 1628 when Rembrandt was in his early twenties. Rembrandt’s style of painting remains consistent from the beginning of his career, when he was an ambitious young man, to the rugged face of his final years. Rembrandt’s final self-portraits usually included his signature velvet beret.
At the height of his career, Rembrandt’s self-portraits depicted him as a fashionable man, often wearing a hat. Similar to his etchings and drawings, Rembrandt occasionally painted himself in fancy dress, however, the quality of the oil painting suggests they were serious pieces of work and not experiments for fun. Several times, Rembrandt painted himself as a character from the Bible, for instance, the Apostle Paul and the Prodigal Son. He also depicted himself as Zeuxis, a Greek painter from the 5th century BC who supposedly died from laughter.
Rembrandt sat in front of a mirror when painting his self-portraits, therefore, the paintings are a reverse of his actual features. As a result, his etchings, which print a mirror image of the original sketch, reveal him in the correct orientation. Rembrandt did not usually include his hands in his paintings, for he realised they would be on the “wrong” side, for instance, his paintbrush would appear to be in his less dominant hand.
Frida Kahlo (1907-54)
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her bold coloured self-portraits. Similar to Rembrandt, they document her life, however, her style is very different, often crossing the border into surrealism. Kahlo’s life experiences were the inspiration for the majority of her paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Kahlo was keen to depict her indigenous Mexican culture in her paintings but, most importantly, she wanted to demonstrate her physical and mental pain.
As a child, Kahlo had suffered from polio, which she fought to overcome so that she could earn a place at medical school. Unfortunately, at 18 years old, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident that, whilst she was lucky to survive, left her with medical problems that would cause her pain for the rest of her life. Whilst lying in bed for three months after the accident, Kahlo occupied herself by painting. She had no formal art training but her early paintings suggest she drew inspiration from European Renaissance painters before developing her recognisable style.
Kahlo’s surreal self-portrait The Broken Column, reveals the devastation to her body caused by the crash. Kahlo painted herself semi-nude with a large crack from chin to hips through which can be seen her crumbling spine. The bus crash had left Kahlo with several spinal fractures, a broken collarbone and ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a shattered pelvis and a broken foot. Although this painting was produced almost two decades after the accident, Kahlo was still feeling the effects and had a total of 30 operations in her lifetime.
The Broken Column shows Kahlo’s body held together by a corset, which was something she needed to wear for most of her life to protect her damaged spine. Her skin is pierced by dozens of nails, indicating her constant pain. Although her facial expression is devoid of emotion, there are tears on her cheeks to indicate the pain and frustration she felt inside, and yet she stares resolutely ahead, having accepted her situation and determined not to let it stop her from living.
For Kahlo, self-portraits were a method of self-expression, initially helping her deal with the aftermath of the bus crash and later her unhappy marriage to Diego Rivera (1886-1957). They were also a way to connect with her Mexican heritage, which was gradually disappearing as Central America became more westernised. Kahlo usually portrayed herself in traditional Mexican clothing, often with Pre-Columbian ornaments in the background. She also included her pet monkey in a few self-portraits. Monkeys are a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology, and Kahlo and her husband had several affairs during their marriage. Although Kahlo did own a monkey, its appearance in her paintings may have been an allusion to her turbulent relationship with Rivera. Alternatively, the monkey, usually shown with an arm or tail around Kahlo’s shoulders, may represent the monkey’s desire to protect its owner.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41)
Amrita Sher-Gil, like Kahlo, explored her heritage in her artwork. Born in Hungary, Sher-Gil was the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Persian Sikh aristocrat. As a child, Sher-Gil liked to paint the servants in her household but did not receive any formal training until the age of eight, by which time the family had moved to India.
At the age of 16, Sher-Gil returned to Europe to train as a painter in Paris. Her early works reveal she was significantly influenced by Western art, particularly Impressionism. She drew inspiration from European artists, such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), especially the latter’s depiction of non-western women.
During her time in Paris, Sher-Gil produced several self-portraits, which were later described by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi as the artist’s way of capturing “her many moods – sombre, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.” Yet, whilst these paintings reflected Western art, her professors remarked that the richness of colours she used was more fitting with the atmosphere in the east. Despite being half-Hungarian, Sher-Gil found herself longing to return to her Indian roots.
In 1936, Sher-Gil returned to India where she made a conscious effort to adopt the style of classical Indian art. Her subject matter reflected the traditional colourful clothing and the rhythms of rural life. She also depicted some of the poverty and despair she witnessed, which was a stark contrast to life in Europe. Her painting style became flatter and smoother the further away she went from Western art.
There are very few self-portraits in Sher-Gil’s later style as she prefered to paint the poor, deprived people of India. Unfortunately, her artistic career was cut short at the age of 28 when she fell ill, eventually slipping into a coma. She passed away on 5th December 1941, possibly from peritonitis, just days away from her first major solo show.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)
“Rembrandt is with the possible exception of Van Gogh, the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression, and he is absolutely the one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.”
– Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt
Like Sher-Gil, Vincent Van Gogh died before he had the opportunity to earn significant recognition in the art world. Amongst his 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings, Van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits. Struggling financially for most of his life, Van Gogh could not afford to hire models, therefore, with the help of a mirror, he painted himself.
“If I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” Suffering from depression for most of his life, Van Gogh had a very low opinion of himself and this quote from a letter written by the artist suggests he practised his technique by creating self-portraits until he felt he was good enough to paint other people.
Whilst living in Paris in 1887, Van Gogh became aware of impressionist artists, for instance, Claude Monet (1840-1926), and their method of applying dabs of paint to the canvas. It was around this time that Van Gogh began using rhythmic brushstrokes, introducing different pigments to highlight the contours of his facial features.
Unintentionally, Van Gogh’s self-portraits provide an autobiography of his mental and physical condition. In earlier paintings, Van Gogh had a fuller face but, as he approached the end of his life, his face became more skeletal with sunken eyes and cheeks, the latter indicating he may have lost some teeth. His brief “good” periods are determined by his choice of clothing and the neatness of his beard and hair. During his “bad” periods, Van Gogh tended to neglect his appearance.
Self-portraits in which Van Gogh’s head is bandaged were produced soon after he had mutilated his ear in 1888. Those painted after this event show Van Gogh from the right, hiding his damaged left ear from view.
Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)
After looking at Van Gogh, the Google Arts and Culture exhibition returns to the 20th century, during which Kahlo and Sher-Gil were both working. Although she only produced one notable self-portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones has been included because she too explored her heritage in her artwork. Unlike Kahlo and Sher-Gil, Jones did not experience her true ancestry until much later in life, yet this did not stop her looking towards Africa and the Caribbean for inspiration.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1905, Jones was the daughter of the first African-American to earn a law degree. Her mother, a cosmetologist, encouraged Jones to draw and paint during her childhood, which led to a lengthy education at a series of art schools. In 1945, Jones eventually received a BA in art education from Howard University, a historically black university, although she had previously earnt a degree in design.
Jones began teaching art before she had completed her degree but this did not prevent her from producing many artworks. Paintings titled Negro Youth and Ascent of Ethiopia contain African design elements, such as those found on African masks. Her work gradually became associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which was known as the New Negro Movement at the time.
In 1940, after spending some time in Paris during which she continued to represent African life in her art, Jones produced her self-portrait. Whilst she wears typical western clothing, the figures in the background are associated with African ceremonies. Although the French were appreciative of her paintings, Jones was not accepted in national galleries and competitions in America on account of her skin colour.
Jones married a Haitian artist in 1953 and began to spend her time between America, Haiti and France. Elements of Haitian culture crept into her artwork and her paintings became more abstract. Finally, in between 1968 and 1970, Jones was able to visit Africa where she interviewed contemporary African artists in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria, Dahomey, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leona, and Senegal.
It is partially Jones’ determination to portray her African heritage in her art that she has paintings in museums all over America. Rather than be deterred by racism, Jones fought to prove that black artists had talent and deserved to be known as American painters with no other labels attached. By her death in 1998, Jones had earned six honorary doctorates, won at least 13 awards and been honoured by President Jimmy Carter (b.1924) at the White House. In 1984, 29th July was declared Loïs Jones Day.
Victor Brecheret (1894-1955)
A self-portrait does not need to be a painting or drawing, as evidenced by the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret. Like Jones, Brecheret made only one known self-portrait but was keen to reference his native country.
Originally born in Italy, Brecheret spent most of his life in São Paulo, except for a brief period studying in Paris. His European modernist education is evident in his work but his human characteristics and forms were inspired by Brazilian folk art.
Many of Brecheret’s sculptures are of biblical or mythological characters, which appear similar to European sculptures until the face is studied more closely. The nose and eyebrows, as can be seen in his self-portrait, are sharp and precise with clean lines, unlike the soft features of classical sculptures. The nose, in particular, appears flat on top, although remains proportionally correct.
Albert Tucker (1914-99), Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Sarah Lucas (b.1962)
It was during the 20th century that having your portrait done changed meaning from painting to photography. Australian artist Albert Tucker, whilst better known for his paintings, demonstrates an early “selfie” taken in a mirror. Although it captures two people, only Tucker appears to be posing for the camera. The woman in the photograph was his first wife Joy Hester (1920-60) who was also an artist.
Whether Tucker’s photograph was spontaneous or staged is uncertain, however, one woman who goes to great lengths to stage her self-portraits is Cindy Sherman, an artist from New Jersey, America. Sherman’s work is exclusively photographic self-portraits, although you would not always know that it was her in the picture. Exploring the idea of identity, Sherman dresses up as characters from film, magazines, television and art history. Quite often she challenges stereotypes, particularly concerning women, and brings into question how much a self-portrait can be trusted.
Sarah Lucas, who is also concerned about the casual misogyny of everyday life, is more down to earth with her photography. Between 1990 and 1998, Lucas produced 12 photographic self-portraits that challenged the stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality. Perceiving her appearance as more masculine than feminine, Lucas dressed in “manly” clothing whilst staring directly at the camera, and thus the viewer, as though challenging them to question her appearance. She often used food to symbolise sexual body parts, such as fried eggs for breasts in Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, which draws attention to her gender.
Amalia Ulman (b.1989)
Whilst the “camera never lies” the subjects, filters and editing do. To emphasise this, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman came up with an idea for a photography project called Excellence and Perfections, which she posted on a fake Instagram account. Ulman initially posed as an aspiring actress, which attracted a lot of attention, causing her follower account to soar. Many people posted messages of encouragement but soon became concerned when the photographs took a drastic turn.
Ulman made people believe she had flown to LA to pursue her dreams, she photographed herself in trendy clothing, taking pole-dancing classes, relaxing in posh hotels and eating expensive meals. Her appearance began to change; she dyed her hair, looked increasingly tired, and to top it off, pretended to have breast augmentation surgery.
When Ulman revealed the Instagram account was a hoax, her followers reacted in two different ways. Many were relieved that Ulman had not drastically changed her appearance and ruined her life, whereas others were so hooked on the story they wanted to continue to believe it was real.
Excellence and Perfections drew attention to how desperate people were to believe their first impressions. Media in the 21st century is inundated with edited images that trick people into believing what they are seeing. Photographs in newspapers are often taken from angles that tell a different story from the truth and other photographs are posed by heavily made-up models and celebrities. The same goes for selfies; how many people use photo filters, wear make-up or pose a certain way to conform to society’s beauty standards?
This brings into question the authenticity of painted portraits. Did Rembrandt really look the way he did in his self-portraits? We know he painted himself as biblical characters, which in some ways is similar to Ulman posing as an aspiring actress. Photographs of Frida Kahlo reveal she looked similar to her self-portraits but her art style, particularly her surrealist paintings, are not realistic. The same can be said for Van Gogh, Loïs Mailou Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil.
Sherman, Lucas and Ulman demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate your appearance in a photograph or selfie and, in this day and age, people can easily edit other people’s photographs. Yet, just because people are more likely to believe a photograph, does not mean people cannot embrace “selfies” as an art medium.
How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie provides a brief timeline of the selfie, revealing that artists have altered their appearances or included symbols and hidden meanings in their self-portraits for centuries. Is there much difference between Ulman pretending to be an actress and Rembrandt pretending to be the Apostle Paul? To argue against that is to bring into question what is art. But that is a discussion for another time…