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From Courbet to Kardashian: The self-portrait’s enduring power

Posted on 05 Aug 2021

Capturing and distributing pictures of oneself is hardly unique to ‘generation selfie’. Here we explore self-portraiture across the ages – including 16th-century influencers.

When the Saatchi Gallery London set out to curate a show on self-imaging, they envisaged a compact display. By the time the exhibition opened, it extended across ten rooms and two floors, taking in cultural figures as diverse as Rembrandt van Rijn, Gustave Courbet, and Kim Kardashian.

The exhibition had its gaps and gimmicks, but amid endless diatribes on millennial narcissism, its juxtaposition of old and new work, of canvas and screen, of painterly process and filtered faces, served as a useful reminder that capturing and distributing pictures of oneself is hardly unique to “generation selfie”.

“For the last five centuries, humans have had this compulsion to create images of themselves,” said curator Nigel Hurst. “The only thing that has changed is the way we do it.”

With her book, The Self-Portrait, Natalie Rudd probes this same history, compiling a chronology of self-portraiture from the Renaissance to the present. With attention to under-represented artists and media, her collection challenges preconceptions of what a self-portrait should look like, and what kind of definitional work it might serve. Along the way, Rudd also reveals intrinsic motivations to self-portraiture that reach across centuries, media, and technological context.

Take Sofonisba Anguissola, the most prolific self-portraitist in western art between Dürer and Rembrandt. It’s unlikely many aspiring social media influencers consider her precedent when framing, snapping, and filtering themselves in requisite pose, place, or attire.  But in her early years as an artist, Anguissola achieved considerable self-promotion – and lucrative success – through her own image.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, late 1550s. Oil on canvas, 66 x 57cm (26 x 22 1⁄2 in.) Museum-Zamek, Lancut, Poland.

In works such as Self-Portrait (c.1556) and Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (late 1550s), the artist repeatedly depicted herself as a means of showcasing her talents, legitimizing her status as an artist, and securing wealthy patronage.

Then there’s Amrita Sher-Gil, the daughter of a Sikh father and Hungarian mother who, in her short life, anticipated contemporary image exploration of intersectional identity. Experimenting with various fashions, poses, and moods, Sher-Gil stages her biracial, bisexual experience and the hybrid influences on her selfhood.

In some works, she sports a chic Parisian bob and European clothing. In others, she wears a sari. In Self-Portrait as a Tahitian (1934), she makes direct reference to Gauguin’s paintings of young Tahitian women, challenging his colonial, sexualizing male gaze.

For Anguissola’s almost contemporary Parmigianino, the self-portrait was both an opportunity to advertise his artistic talents and a document of youth and beauty. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1523) is a small, circular painting that the artist carried with him when he first arrived in Rome. In it, the artist places his own image front and centre: youthful, pale, aloof.

With its exaggerated proportions and pallid complexion, the work is a statement of the new Mannerist style Parmagianino loved. But the painting is also highly self-conscious. Like the most alert social-media user, Parmigianino has styled his dress, haircut, and gestures to contemporary fashion, announcing not only his professional ability but his belonging to a particular milieu. His idealized, childlike features speak to our enduring preoccupation with youth and to a particular fascination with beautiful boyhood in Renaissance Italy. “His image,” wrote an enraptured Vasari, “had the appearance of a thing divine”.

Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova made similar claims to her own beauty, but with an interest, too, in its rituals, accessories, and intimate space. In At the Dressing Table, the artist offers a turn-of-the-century study in self-care, filling the picture not only with her own radiant appearance, but also with the hair pins and combs, the perfumes and pearls that make up her toilette.

In other works, we find the attempt to bridge the individual image with collective experience. Much as the selfie can be used to situate the self within a wider context, movement, or value system, artists through the centuries have inserted their own image into a wider scheme.

A standout example is Faith Ringgold, for whom the self-portraiture is an expression not only of her own experience but also of her African-American community. In her quilted Self-Portrait (1998), the artist interweaves figurative painting, applique designs, and handwritten narrative.

Drawing inspiration from oral histories, African-American quilt-making and Tibetan thangkas, the work depicts Ringgold’s own autobiography and flights of fancy alongside historical events. The result is a self-portraiture situated both in and beyond time, alert to the structural forces shaping every selfhood, while delighting in the imagination that can transport us beyond them.

“After I decided to be an artist,” Ringgold has reflected, “the first thing that I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene and that I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness, or my femaleness, or my humanity.”


Words by Eliza Apperly