The Original Selfies

Rembrandt and Kim Kardashian have something in common: Both showed off in images they created of themselves. A new book reveals the self-portrait’s fascinating and revealing history.

04.15.14 9:45 AM ET

As history would have it, we all have a little Kim Kardashian in us—even masters like Velasquez. While the famed Spanish artist behind Las Meninas may not have been posting pictures of his rotund derriere on Instagram, he, along with many other well-known artists, were driven to create and disseminate portraits of themselves.

While we may never know why Kardashian does it, knowing why artists like Rembrandt and Courbet did so is at the heart of art historian James Hall’s book, The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History.

Self-portraits today are consumed by general audiences often with the cult of the artist in mind—that they are a window into a true genius or tormented soul, à la Munch or Van Gogh, as well as promotional. 

However, argues Hall, the point in history when self-portraiture really took off was during the Middle Ages. Prior to the medieval period, artists had been shunned, notably by Plato for what he deemed their imitation of nature. However, with theological shifts in Europe, as personal salvation and self-scrutiny became more important in religious life, the artist, and self-portraits, gained prominence. The artist, instead of a mere craftsman, was beginning to be revered as something quite different.

Father Rufillus of Weissenau, Self-Portrait Illuminating the Initial ‘R’,
		c. 1170–1200

Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cologny, Geneva

Father Rufillus of Weissenau, Self-Portrait Illuminating the Initial ‘R’, c. 1170–1200.

Hall highlights the best from this era. Father Rufillus of Weissenau’s Self-Portrait Illuminating the Initial ‘R’ is beautiful in its detail and symbolism. The phantasmagoric “R” features a twisting serpent, a sciapod (one-legged mythic creature), as well as a self-portrait of Rufillus in action, toiling away at his work. In the process he has conquered the snake by making it part of his art.

There is a palpable humility and subservience in St. Dunstan’s Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ. A sixth the size of Christ in the image, Dunstan prostrates himself before the Savior, and asks him for protection, on the rocky slope of Taenarum, which was the mythical entrance to the underworld. Dunstan as Archbishop of Canterbury, writes Hall, was “by any measure … the most high-ranking and politically powerful artist in history.” Well, maybe until George Bush.

St Dunstan, Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ, c. 943–57

Bodleian Library, Oxford

St Dunstan, Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ, c. 943–57.

Hall’s writing is not only accessible for a general audience, but filled with notable insights, including spicy, prurient ones. We learn that Raphael’s early death was due to “excessive love-making” and that letters from famed German humanists Willibald Pirckheimer and Lorenz Beheim joked about the sordid romantic entanglements of their famous friend, German painter Albrecht Dürer, writing, “[Dürer’s] boy, I know, loathes his beard; thus he had better be careful to shave.”

The self-portrait as a glorification of the artist took off in the 1490s, according to Hall. That self-glorification is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Dürer’s Self-Portrait (one of 16) from 1500, in which he depicts himself as a Christ-like misanthrope with painstakingly detailed “permed hair, plucked eyebrows, waxed handlebar moustache, and trimmed beard.”

Titian, Self-Portrait, 1560s

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Titian, Self-Portrait, 1560s.

Dürer, as we well know, was far from alone. Whereas self-portraits in the Middle Ages glorified both God and the artist, during the Renaissance they became a medium for the idolization of the artist. For instance, German sculptor Adam Kraft’s self-portrait sculpture in Nuremberg from c. 1493-6 depicts the artist as an Atlas-like figure supporting a 61-feet-tall tabernacle in the church of St. Lorenz.

They also became venues for the personal agendas of the artists. Hall suggests that Titian possibly used self-portraits to manipulate how old the public thought he was. This would be a benefit for the Venetian painter, as the city at that time was a gerontocracy, with the average age of the doges (the rulers of Venice) was roughly seventy. This trend continues through Norwegian painter Edvard Munch at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, whose famous issues with women after the break in his relationship with Tulla Larsen, became apparent in a work like his Self-Portrait in Hell. In it, Munch attached his head to the body of a female; the symbolic meaning, that he no longer required a woman in his life.

While we may think of modern artists as particularly egotistical, their exploits pale in comparison to those from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Beneath a self-portrait, the popular Umbrian artist Perugino, had inscribed on his fresco Self-Portrait between Famous Men of Antiquity, completed between 1496 and 1500, “If the art of painting were lost, he would bring it back. If no one had invented it, he would do so.” After being rejected from having a burial in the Pantheon in Rome, sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) had a Pantheon-esque memorial, Tempio della Trinità, built in the Veneto countryside. Florentine sculptor, architect, and theorist Antonio di Pietro Averlino, better known as Filarete (c. 1400-c. 1469) placed his self-portrait on the interior of doors on St. Peter’s in Rome.

Hall also covers one of the more compelling early counter-cultural movements, the mock-heroic self-portrait—think Sick Bacchus by Caravaggio or Caroto’s utterly fantastic Portrait of a Red-Headed Youth Holding a Drawing. Artists were shown in unbecoming situations, or in ways that mocked their skills or occupation. Caroto’s, for instance, mocks the notion of the male child prodigy. As Hall explains, the myth of the male child prodigy focuses on the artist “who either outstrips his teachers or else has no teachers apart from nature.” (Michelangelo would later claim that his teacher, Ghirlandaio, taught him nothing.) In Caroto’s painting, his younger self is shown not with a masterpiece, but with a stick drawing.

Caravaggio, Self-Portrait as Sick Bacchus, 1594

Galleria Borghese, Rome

Caravaggio, Self-Portrait as Sick Bacchus, 1594.

Much like modern television’s obsession with the anti-hero, artists became interested in portraying themselves as less than their best selves. This de-idealization came about, in part, Hall argues, because artists were now wealthy and powerful enough to mock themselves.

Some of Hall’s artist-subjects are less well-known. Parmigianino’s 1524 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was given to Pope Clement VII as a gift, and features Parmigianino (who kind of looks like a brunette Dakota Fanning) placing his left hand up close to the mirror, because, according to Hall, “in the courtly love tradition the left hand is pre-eminent. Rings given by lovers were supposed to be placed on the little finger of the left hand.”

Another is Anne Seymour Damer’s 1778 Self-Portrait marble bust. Damer’s specialty was animal sculptures, and a critic compared her skills to those of Bernini. Her bust was novel not only for being created by a female, but for its subtle breaks from tradition. Hall notes that its “eyelids lowered meditatively rather than meekly” and that as the bust excludes her breasts, she leaves the viewer uncertain about her gender.

Also not as well known, and yet one of the more dramatic self-portraits that Hall focuses on (it’s on the book’s cover) is James Barry’s Self-Portrait with Dominique Lefèvre and James Paine the Younger. Barry, an Irishman, was his era’s misunderstood genius. Thrown out of the Royal Academy in 1799 for his public criticisms (he was obsessed with the idea that the government was neglecting history painting), he would end his life in poverty and convinced the Royal Academy was plotting his death.

His 1767 self-portrait, however, is intoxicating, not only for of the drama he inserts into a relatively staid genre, or his disconcerting gaze, but for the uncertain standing in which the viewer is placed, wondering whether we are distracting this temperamental young man, or he is ready to show his work to us.

The 20th century saw fantastic self-portraits by artists like Magritte and Frida Kahlo, and the 21st century is seeing self-portraits take new forms with artists like Tatsumi Orimoto. And, of course, there is Kardashian herself, queen of the selfie, much-derided by her critics, yet able to land one of the best-selling and most talked-about Vogue covers of recent years. The star practitioners of the self-portrait are as controversial as they always were, and just as adept at shaping our culture.

The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History by James Hall is published by Thames & Hudson.