Rembrandt, “Self Portrait” (1659) (image via Wikimedia)

CHICAGO — The selfie is a smartphone-produced version of the self-portrait, which has been a staple of art and photography history since artists first began seeing examining their own images in the mirror. The selfie series here on Hyperallergic has mostly utilized images shot mostly with smartphone cameras, a way for the one shooting the picture to see themselves the way they would like to be seen. Thus far, the selfies have concentrated mostly on twins, mirrors, and the philosophical implications of disseminating the selfie via social networks and the internet, wherein the selfie can receive validation from their social circle.

In the selfie mode of photography, there is no outside photographer with a camera shooting them the way they see them. But selfies are not necessarily self-empowering; through their social network dissemination, they appear decontextualized, awash in a sea of internet anonymity. A selfie is a selfie is a selfie. But what about a self-portrait? Here are five art historical self-portraits that are predecessors to the modern-day selfie. Put your smartphone away (or let it die, like I just did), take a look in a John Berger-esque way, and remember what life was like before those mini-interruptions that we like to call iMessages, texts and ongoing gchat-like conversations presented you with more faces that you’d care even to see IRL.

Francisco de Goya

Autorretrato en el taller (Self-portrait in the Studio), 1790-1795, oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Image via Wikimedia.

The Spanish painter Goya was no stranger to self-portraiture. In fact, when he wasn’t painting bull fights, crucified Christs, boys playing soldiers, ladies on swings, the Holy Family, and portraits of important people such as the Count of Floridablanca and the family of Infante Don Luis, he was busy looking at himself. Most great artists have a litany of self-portraits which, before the era of selfies and other forms of instant digital photography, were a way of capturing the aging process, the maturation of the artist, and a glorious outfit. Here we see a self-portrait from 1795, which was begun in 1790 and took five years to complete; the artist is painting in a Romantic style, with a hazy light coming through the widows, and a generous paint palette. His fashionable black top hat pairs well with his matador-esque black coat with red lining. Previous Goya self-portraits took about five years to make as well; there’s one from 1770-1775 and another from 1783, both of which portray the artist as stately, proud and lost in thought. In comparison, his 1795 portrait brings forth a confidence that, in his younger years, the artist had not yet achieved.

Marie-Denise Villers

Marie-Denise Villers, “Young Woman Drawing” (1801), image via

Marie-Denise Villers’ “Young Woman Drawing” (1801) is thought to be a self-portrait (as argued by Anne Higonnet), yet at one time it was credited to Jacques-Louis David. Behind every man there is a great lady, and sometimes she is the creative force in question. This work of art was exhibited in the Salon of 1801, and shows the young woman intently matching the viewer’s gaze while taking a momentary break from her laborious task at hand. Dressed in a flowing white gown and pink ribbon around the waist, she is a fashionable dame for this time, and she is painting herself as she sees herself rather than how a man fashions her. If this were a selfie photo of today, certainly she would have had to set-up the smartphone on a timer, posed in front of a mirror, and snapped. Instead, she labors over the drawing, possibly in front of a mirror. The self-portrait takes time; it is a quiet study of oneself over the period of weeks, months, possibly years, whereas the selfie serves its purpose in the moment, capturing but a millisecond rather than a layering of many seconds.

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet, Le Désespéré (1843). Image via Wikipedia

Does desperation make the artist appear sexier or just more isolated in his imaginary world? Painted more than 20 years before he discovered “The Origin of the World” (1866), this tortured-looking self portrait of the artist in the middle of a manic, deer-in-headlights type of moment spotlights what happens when an artist stops taking their meds. No, just kidding: This is actually a portrait of what every young emerging male artist under the age of 30 should strive to look like. We hope Courbet brushed up on his handsome handlebar mustache after this portrait, for it serves as a reminder that those things take work. His slightly rosy cheeks, however, glow in that kind of manic pixie dream girl way, as he “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures,” as originally stated by the film critic Nathan Rabin. Of course, just substitute genders as you please, and if you’d like. Either way, Courbet is probably dreamier than Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but that really depends on which teen-girl you ask.

Man Ray 

Man Ray, “Self Portrait Postcard” (1932). Image via Flickr.

The Dada and Surrealist artist Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) was known for his avant-garde images (before the avant-garde died!), including self-portraits and photographs of famous figures such as Catherine Deneuve, Helen Tamiris and Picasso. Man Ray’s muse, the model-turned photographer Lee Miller, was also captured in a similar surrealist style as Man Ray captured himself wherein the side portrait of the subject seems to both float and glow simultaneously, somewhere between a sabattier and solarization, both of which reverse tones in the photograph, thus rendering a surprising dimensionality where it did not previously exist. Man Ray’s self-portraiture, like his contemporary Marcel Duchamp explored the the construction of identity and very much echo the purpose of selfiehood today.

Frida Kahlo 

Frida Kahlo, “Fulang Chang and I,” (1937). Image via Flickr.

Is it possible to write a post about self-portraiture in art history without mentioning Frida Kahlo? Nowadays the famous artist is grouped into the teen-girl tumblr aesthetic, and her self-portrait becomes a selfie through gif-ification. Here we see an early full-on unibrow self-portrait from 1937 entitled Fulang-Chang and I (Fulang-Chang y yo), in which Frida paints herself with her spider monkey pet. Most fans of Frida like to talk about her many love affairs with famous writers and artists, or her torrid marriage with Diego Rivera, or her glorified sickliness. I will talk about none of those things here because this somber self-portrait of the artist with her furry companion is more than enough. Much like Courbet, she paints her cheeks rosy; her gaze drifts to the side, never catching the viewers’ eye in a similar way as contemporary artist Peregrine Honig’s twin boys. Kahlo’s pet monkey reminds me of Paris Hilton’s monkey Baby Luv, which notoriously attacked her in 2005 and was declared illegal in 2009. Luckily, Kahlo didn’t have to deal with monkey separation anxiety. Today, Kahlo has doppelgängers roaming about, shooting selfies, and being regular teen-girl heroes.

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I, Selfie is a series of ongoing conversations around people working in the medium of the selfie. The selfie imagemakers are accepting themselves as objects and reflecting their images back through the smartphone camera lens. They control the images of themselves that float around these murky virtual waters, but they cannot anticipate how these images will be received or perceived by others who exist in the internet void, a space that we pleasurably and both selfishly and selflessly indulge in. 

Email Hyperallergic your selfie at selfies [at], along with a brief explanation of why you shot it and what it means to you.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

3 replies on “Before the Selfie, the Self-Portrait”

  1. Sadly you left out my favorite self portrait, Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath” from 1610.

    The artist painted himself as Goliath possibly David as well, there is some dispute as to whether it is a selfie of him as a boy or a young relative .

    The painting was a gift to Cardinal Borghese, in the hopes of securing a pardon for murder.

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