In 2013, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “selfie” was their word of the year and defined it as, a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. As an art historian, I immediately started thinking about the kinds of portraits and self-portraits art’s greatest masters may have created if they had access to smartphones. In 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston acquired a photograph titled “Monkey Selfie”, a selfie taken by a crested macaque in Indonesia using equipment belonging to British photographer David Slater, raising complex legal questions about art and copyright. I immediately started working on a series of lectures that I titled “The Art of Portraiture and Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie”, offering a panoramic overview of drawn, painted, sculpted and photographed portraits and self-portraits in Art History from Dürer and Rembrandt to the Post-Modern and Contemporary period.
What do artists see when they are depicting a human being? Portraits and self-portraits are not just innocent depictions of personalized features. They are a complex visual language that involves a series of choices, from the simple “this is what someone looks like” to the multi-layered “this is who someone is, or is not”. A series of fascinating questions are raised on representation and image, likeness, status, identity, role, story-telling and narcissism. As with any exercise in art appreciation, it becomes even more complex when portraits are examined from the viewpoint of both the artist and the viewer. Portrayal by artists may reflect their desire to record individualized features and appearance, to become self-important and famous, to stage likeness with self-esteem and self-confidence, alone or in company, for the present moment and for posterity. It is a very relevant and meaningful topic to explore in light of our 21st century’s obsession with selfies and the self.