27 February 2014




      This week, rather than discussing one specific noteworthy individual, I would like to address various artists known for their self-portraits and the contemporary phenomenon of the “selfie”. Albrecht Dürer, a High Renaissance German painter, engraver, printmaker, and mathematician, is often considered the first artist to portray himself in a self-portrait. While he painted several throughout his life, his most prolific painting illustrates his 'constructed' character at the age of 28. When I say character, I’m referring to how he portrays himself through strategic visual devices. Art historians have suggested that the way in which he fashioned his hair, his luxurious fur collar, his soul-piercing gaze, the heavenly light illuminating his face, as well as the position of his glowing hand signal his deliberate self-alignment with Christ. Having studied Art History during my undergraduate degree, I spent many years examining portraits and identifying deliberate features that determine the subject’s projected persona. 

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at age 28, 1500.

      Judith Leyster, a 17th century Dutch painter, is also famous for her artist self-portrait in which she strategically depicts herself sitting at her easel with a painting, paintbrush, and palette in hand. Because her clothing appears far too ornamental for painting, she was likely asserting her social role as a married (as noted by her head covering) middle class woman who excelled in her profession as a painter. Frida Kahlo is yet another painter who illustrated her character and life through numerous self-portraits. She expressed her physical and emotional anguish as well as her political and philosophical beliefs in the symbols present in her self-portraits. One of her most noteworthy features is her facial hair. Did she prominently illustrate it to convey her non-conformist and feminist beliefs? While her style differed greatly from those of Dürer and Leyster, she also deliberately constructed her identity in her artworks that were intended for the public to view. 

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, 1630.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940.

      Robert Cornelius, was the first known photographer to capture a daguerrotype image of himself. He wrote “the first light picture ever taken” on the back of the photographic print. Rather than depicting another person or a landscape scene, he depicted himself. Perhaps this was deliberate as he wanted to directly associate himself with this groundbreaking invention. His image will forever represent the development of this technology. 

Robert Cornelius, Self-Portrait, 1839.

      These four examples not only trace the evolution of self-portraits or the “selfie” but they also suggest that people have utilized imagery as a mechanism to construct their identities for many centuries. Now, more than ever, people are consistently portraying themselves through photographs. While they appear less calculated than perhaps Dürer’s paintings, they are yet another mechanism that illustrate identity. People take “selfies” in museums, at bars, at concerts, in parks, on trips, and in their bathrooms. They subsequently share them on their social media accounts for their friends, family, and acquaintances to see— in the case of twitter and instagram they may even include a flattering filter. While these images are often produced more spontaneously than historic paintings and photographs, I personally believe that they are just as calculated in their construction (i.e. setting, clothing, etc.). Ultimately, they assert the persona in which the creator wishes to project to the public. With this in mind, do you believe that "selfies" express the 'aura' of the subject or do they portray a falsehood? What do you think of the overwhelming popularity of the "selfie"? How has this effected our society? Can you think of other historical examples of “selfies”? Please share your thoughts. ;-)

Sorry Vermeer!



  1. This is a great comparison because, in some ways, "selfies" and self-portraits share many qualities -- yet at the same time the form is so strikingly different. What I mean to say here is that, yes, the self-portrait (like the selfie) is an interpretation of one's own identity, and at times an assertion of status or position in an historical or cultural moment.

    But whereas self-portraits generally are calculated, planned, and painstakingly created, selfies are captured -- and shared -- all in the span of a brief moment. This may be an obvious point, but it leads to some very strange manifestations of the selfie (such as the very unfortunate "funeral selfie") or consequences that the person taking the selfie maybe didn't have the time or wherewithal to consider.

    To me, there's also an element of sadness to the selfie. Whereas I see a self-portrait as very deliberate statement of self-identity, the selfie implies that the subject just has no one else there to take his or her picture. I want to ask the subjects of these selfies, why are you at a party alone? Why are you hanging out in the bathroom taking pictures of yourself instead of mourning your deceased relative? And why do you need to prove that this moment happened by sharing it on your social media networks? (Can you tell that I generally don't like the idea of selfies?)

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Katherine. I am 100% there with you. I have never really been a fan of the selfie, which is why I brought this up. In trying to take more of a neutral stance on it in this post, I perhaps failed to mention how I feel saddened by the evolution. It was once such a noble activity but the selfie has in many ways devalued it. On the other hand, the portrayal of the self has become more democratized as only middle and upper classes had the ability to commission portraits of themselves. It certainly is a very heated subject! Thanks for your input. ;-)

  3. Great post Jaime! Yes, I certainly am intrigued by the "Selfie" evolution as well. However, I can't say I am too active in contributing to this new wave of "capturing the moment." This is for a few reasons, the first being the fact that I am just not a picture-taker as it is. The second, I would just feel strange about constantly taking my own photo, especially in public where people in this day and age are definitely aware of what you're doing. I suppose that perhaps relates a little to what Katherine was saying, about an element of sadness found in the Selfie. It is no secret when a photo album of one of your Facebook friends appears, entirely devoted to their bathroom mirror photoshoot, that that individual has just spent the better part of a Friday night compiling these images. By themselves. I find that strange. Does that person taking the photos not realize how obvious it is that they have spent this much time and effort constructing their identity in this photoshoot...and for what...a facebook profile picture? Perhaps they want to demonstrate this fact? I'm just not sure. I suppose that's where I find some sadness...instead of doing a solo photo shoot in front of your mirror...perhaps go out and interact with someone? Make a memory?

    On the other hand, I can understand the allure of capturing a fleeting, candid moment, especially if your participating in something particularly exciting or significant. Or if you want to capture a moment you shared with a particular person. The daily photographic updates on your meal choices, however, (tantilizing though they may look) I find a bit odd. I suppose that is just the nature of the times we live...people started out becoming fascinated by celebrities day-to-day lives...and now we are fascinated by each other's day-to-day lives, whether we know the people or not. Perhaps this is just our 21st century human nature...we can't help but want to peek inside the lives of others (rich, poor, famous, infamous, etc.) and inevitably compare our own life to those individuals. I suppose it is kind of like some sort of ongoing self evaluation/self-identity evaluation?

    Anyway, I think I have rambled enough...Way to get one thinking :)

  4. What a great discussion! What I find intriguing about the selfie is the way in which is kind of appeared in the contemporary popular imaginary all of a sudden (almost overnight). It seems like one day, the selfie became a way to reflect on ourselves but at the same time it was framed as being totally disconnected from a history of using different lenses to observe ourselves and our daily rituals (yes, especially food :). The selfie is a very interesting method of communication as it is a selfish endeavor (being about the self) but at the same time fits within those framework you mentioned, Brittney, of a collective fascination with peeking into each other's lives.