500 Years of the Selfie

World's first selfie

World’s first selfie

 Although the phrase “Selfie” is a relatively new one, the idea of creating an image of oneself is a lot older. The first artist credited with a self-portrait was Caterina van Hemessen. She was born in Antwerp in 1528 and lived until 1587, and although not the most accomplished of painters, her, self-painting is the oldest surviving example of a selfie.

Portraits in frescoes
While a number of artists sat themselves in front of a mirror and painted their reflection, others chose to preserve their image for posterity by including their faces in the characters of commissions. They rarely take centre stage, appearing in the fringes or behind the lead figures. Ruben’s put himself in the frame in “The Four Philosophers” (1611 -12), Piero della Francesco is a sleeping soldier, Gozzoli joins the Medici Parade and Botticelli is in the crowd at the Adoration of the Magi.
Arnolfini Mirror

Arnolfini Mirror

Hidden selfie

It is also suggested that Jan van Eyck is one of the reflections in the mirror of the famous Arnolfini portrait. Where the artist can be clearly seen with the sitters backs to the mirror. One of the oldest, young selfies was of a teenage Albrecht Durer in 1484 and Leonardo da Vinci captured his own likeness in 1512.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi

Baroque Self-portrait

One of the most elegant and stylish self-portraits has to be by the Baroque artist, Artemisia Gentileschi in the 1630s. Dressed up in her finery, palate and brush in hand, sleeve rolled up and standing in front of her easel. This has to be one of the most overly dressed painting occasions, complete with a flouncy, satin dress and gold chain. Artists just don’t make an effort in their studio these days.

By the 17th century it was becoming more common for artists to paint self-portraits and Rembrandt produced a number, as did the famous 18th century portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Rococo artist, Roselba Carriera was another painter who pushed forward portrait painting and was one of the first artists to use pastels. She was a favourite of young men on the Grand Tour when they stayed over in Venice and is said to have done a fine trade in under the counter saucy material for the boys on tour.
Van Gogh Self-portrait

Van Gogh Self-portrait

The artists portrait

Someone who was never shy of putting his image down on canvas was Vincent van Gogh, he painted thirty seven selfies during the late 1800s. Egon Schiele was another who was happy to paint himself and in a variety of explicit poses too.

The 20th century saw art and portraiture taken to new levels with the Dadaists, Expressionists and Cubists all producing an array of interesting figurative likenesses. Picasso loved to put himself into his art and some of the more subtle renditions came from the hand of wan and soulful Amedeo Modigliani. The protagonists of Pop Art also took to using their own images as subject matter with Andy Warhol creating his brightly coloured sets of crazy hair photo prints of himself.
German photographer BingThe photo selfie itself dates back to 1839 with the first recorded photographed self portrait being of Robert Cornelius. A faded, ghost like image of the Philadelphian amateur chemist and photographer. One of the most stylish self photos has to be the one take by chic photographer IIse Bing in 1931, a wonderful use of lighting and mirrors.
Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol Modern Era

Modern era portraits

So while the word selfie in 2013 made it into the Oxford English Dictionary and Ellen Degeneres at the Oscars took the selfie to new heights, artists have been capturing themselves for over 500 years.

Although fashions may have changed, we have still been given everything from the naked artist in repose, to those dressed up for the ball. They have given us a snapshot of their private lives and an inkling of how they viewed themselves, all at an arms length.

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2 responses to “500 Years of the Selfie

  1. Nice history of the selfie! Do you think that Ilse Bing might be credited with the first (if not the most stylish) photo selfie,

    ?
    regards, Brian (Elizabeth’s friend in San Francisco)

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