The selfie has become a trendy topic of discussion, both positively and negatively, since the popularity of cell phones and social media grew. People criticize the “selfie culture,” discussing how younger generations are self-absorbed for posting carefully posed and edited images of themselves on social media. But this isn’t new. In fact, its hundreds of years old. Before the instagram selfie was the portrait, specifically the artists’ self portrait.
Portraiture was a common subject for artists, particularly for women because they could create works based on their family and themselves from their home without receiving an education in art in an artist’s studio (where they were banned because, GASP, God for bid they see a nude body!). But these portraits, specifically self-portraits, were a way for these women to create their public persona. Just like people carefully curate their Instagrams with the perfect picture, creating the perfect self portrait was a way for these women to advertise themselves.
In her 1556 self-portrait, Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola depicts herself in the middle of painting a painting of the Virgin Mary and Child. This composed portrait of an artist at work actually is incredibly revealing about the artist and the type of person she wanted to be perceived as. Her choice to wear a simple black dress aligns her with the expectations for what artists during the period were expected to wear. She shows herself in the process of working, something that was relatively unseen before this. She purposefully shows herself as an active artist during a time when women were typically excluded from the art world. This example went on to influence later women artists, such as Judith Leyster (left), Lavinia Fontana (center), and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (right).
The next time you take a selfie, pause to consider the (perhaps unconscious) thought put into it. What public persona are you presenting when you post it? What do your choice in clothing, setting, and activity reveal about who you are or who you want people to think you are? In doing so, you connect yourself to a centuries long tradition of artists creating their self-portraits and curating their public image!
For more about self portraiture, check out:
Liana Cheney et al, Self-Portraits by Women Artists.