Was Rembrandt the King of the Selfie?

by Aileen Mitchell 6. September 2016 13:20

"I'm just going to take a selfie" – a sentence that is now almost unavoidable. The selfie (short for self-portrait) has become a cultural phenomenon from an entire exhibition in Shoreditch to a published book of Kim Kardashian's oeuvre.

Before we give this craze a deeper look, we need to give it a bit of artistic integrity in the form of Rembrandt van Rijn: one of the greatest painters in European art history. Appearing in nearly 100 of his own works around a mere 50 years after the birth of the self-portrait, was Rembrandt a master of chiaroscuro, capturing the nature of mankind and also king of the selfie?

The history of the self-portrait

The first known self-portrait can actually be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt 1300BC, beginning with Pharaoh Akhenaton's chief sculptor, Bek. Bek created a chiselled self-portrait of himself and his wife, which is considered by many Egyptologists to be the first known instance of a portrait actually carved by the artist.

The art of painting self-portraits was not used in the European art world until late into the Renaissance period (1300 – 1600) with artists such as Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) and Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441) in the 1500s.

Self-Portrait – Albrecht Durer

Since then, we have been able to enjoy countless artists carefully cataloguing each stage of their careers through self-portraiture. The practice began to grow in popularity as mirror became cheaper, better quality and more readily available. Some of the most renowned artists are van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Picasso (1881 – 1973) and Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) (who could arguably have overtaken Rembrandt for the selfie title if Rembrandt was not quite so revered!)

The benefits of a self-portrait

The Night Watch - Rembrandt

Self-portraits have typically been a type of artwork harder to sell than other portraits and landscapes. Despite this, there are lots of reasons for artists wanting to continue painting them. Artists could use a self-portrait as a means of study when trying out new techniques and styles without the huge expense of paying for a model. In fact, Rembrandt was known to have his students also copy his self-portraits for perfecting their painting skills.

Self-Portrait 1660 - Rembrandt

Before the days of PR agencies, self-portraits were an excellent and less expensive way of producing a portfolio of pieces to demonstrate an artist's talent.

Practical benefits aside, many famous painters had much more artistic, creative reasons for depicting themselves. This was a chance for artists to portray themselves the way they wished for society to remember them.

"Are we to paint what's on the face, what's inside the face, or what's behind it?"- Picasso

Rembrandt and the self-portrait

Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) the Dutch painter and print maker produced some of the most recognisable works today and is regarded as one of the greatest artists in the history of European art. 

Self-Portrait with Velvet Beret and Furred Mantle 1634 - Rembrandt

Many of Rembrandt's paintings are portrait studies and biblical scenes, which achieve an inspiring amount of detail that captures natural movement. As an accomplished artist in portraiture, Rembrandt appears to have inserted himself into many of his scenes. The 1642 painting known as the The Night's Watch – the largest of his paintings - is one of the most well known of Rembrandt's works and an example of how he added himself to the subject of his scenes as a character in the background.

Being a subject in the crowd, however, was not enough for Rembrandt. He also portrayed himself in a number of historical costumes and posed as the subject for many of his paintings – sometimes even pulling faces!

According to the Rembrandt Research Project, Rembrandt's oeuvre of nearly 300 paintings, 300 etchings and 2,000 drawings contain over forty self-portraits. Pervious art historians had thought the number to be over ninety, but after autograph analysis many of these appear to have been painted by students.

Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul - Rembrandt

Behind the success of his artist career, Rembrandt had a rather turbulent personal life including the death of three of his four children, followed by his wife, and financial troubles owing to a lavish lifestyle. Unlike other artists of the day, Rembrandt's self-portraits give a very clear marker for his true appearance and emotional state throughout his life. We can see a very clear timeline from young, rich artist to the very weathered and troubled face of the old painter. This large volume of self-portraits was not simply created for vanity, but as a means of expression and documentation.

It is this attitude towards the self-portrait, the combination of attractive poses and very real depictions that make us compare Rembrandt similar to the modern selfie. Although many artists have come later and produced just as many – if not more – self-portraits, Rembrandt was one of the first artists to adopt this style so early after its introduction to European art. Unlike his contemporaries, Rembrandt also used them as a tool to display the troubles, the emotion and the drama of his real life – something the modern day selfie is used for by countless personalities and famous profiles.

We have to award Rembrandt to be the true King of the selfie for his revolutionary take on a trend that helped make him one of the most respected and well-known artists in history.

Find a modern take on a selfie or self-portrait and visit our gallery!

[Image credits]

User: Albrecht Dürer - Web Gallery of Art: 

/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

User: Rembrandt - www.rijksmuseum.nl 

/ Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

User: eev.liu.edu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

User: Rembrandt - mQGjCu2ESqQc_w at Google Cultural Institute / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

User: Rembrandt - LwGcE5lQC5dLUg at Google Cultural Institute / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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