How the Self-Portrait Evolved Into the Selfie

By Google Arts & Culture

Arthur Elgort Self Portrait (2012-01-01) by Arthur ElgortCondé Nast Archive

A look at the artists who’ve defined self-portraiture

It’s said that every day 93 million selfies are taken all over the world, with many of them being shared across multiple platforms for handfuls of likes, comments and adoration. While it might seem like we’re more self-obsessed than ever, you could argue the simple act of snapping a pic of yourself is merely a form of self-expression, with a much bigger potential audience.

Astronaut Ricky Arnold takes an selfie or space-selfie to swap thermal control gear.NASA

The art of self-expression, and more specifically self-portraiture – the godfather of the selfie – goes back centuries. Since the earliest times, we as humans have loved to let people know what we looked like through art. Yet it wasn’t until the Early Renaissance, in the mid-15th century, that the trend really started to grow. This shift in artists experimenting with self-portraiture was brought on by mirrors becoming better and cheaper to get hold of and the advent of panel painting – the technique of painting on a flat panel of wood rather than on walls, which were often uneven or using vellum (animal skin that went through a long preparation process).

Mary Cassatt Self-Portrait (circa 1880) by Mary Stevenson CassattSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

It became an opportunity for artists to depict themselves as the main subject, as heroes in their own stories. Even today it’s still seen as an opportunity to capture a version of yourself nobody else sees. The difference though, is that a digital selfie is a much more instant way of creating a self-portrait, its reach is far bigger than it ever was, and there's more of a danger that it can be manipulated not just by the creator, but by other people. It's this uncertainty that has perhaps led people to talk about the deluge of selfies and the motivations behind them more in recent years.

AFLW 2019 Preliminary Finals (2019-03-23) by Mike OwenAustralian Football League

Whatever the method, whether it’s oil on canvas or a snapshot made up of pixels, these parallels suggest a need to look at the artists that have used self-portraiture in their work over the years, to pinpoint key moments, developments and motivations.

Here we’ve searched through museum archives and gallery collections to highlight the best examples of self-portraits and selfies from around the world.

Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661) by Rijn, Rembrandt vanRijksmuseum


Working in the 1600s, Rembrandt’s self-portraits form an important part of his oeuvre. Creating nearly 100 self-portraits in the form of paintings, etchings and drawings, the artist often depicted himself as confident and accomplished, with his velvet beret a signature attribute.

Rembrandt Laughing (about 1628) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van RijnThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Rembrandt's self-portraits were created by the artist looking at himself in a mirror, and the paintings and drawings therefore reverse his actual features. This is one reason why the hands are usually omitted or "just cursorily described" in his paintings as they would be on the "wrong" side if painted from the mirror. Zoom into the images below to see the fine brushstrokes the artist has used to capture an accurate likeness to himself.

Self-portrait with Monkey (1945) by Frida KahloMuseo Robert Brady

Frida Kahlo

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is known for her colorful and highly detailed self-portraits. Taking them beyond an aesthetic portrayal of herself, Kahlo’s works dealt with the artist’s physical and psychological suffering during her lifetime, as well as touching upon her turbulent marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, and sometimes offered a philosophical standpoint on politics, feminism, and other issues.

Self Portrait (5) (1932) by Amrita Sher-GilNational Gallery of Modern Art

Amrita Sher-Gil

Said to be a pioneer in Indian art and one of the greatest avant-garde artists of the 20th century, Amrita Sher-Gil embarked on a series of self-portraits during the 1930s while in Paris. Within them, the artist explored her Indian background with her European training and conveyed a plethora of moods.

Self-Portrait as a Tahitian by Amrita Sher-gilKiran Nadar Museum of Art

This series of paintings was a way for Sher-Gil to experiment with ways of representing the non-western body. She was inspired by Paul Gauguin's work, particularly his depictions of the South Sea Islands and his "stylistically simplified, yet symbolically charged" Tahitian nudes.

Self-portrait (March 1887 - June 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Vincent Van Gogh

In the self-portraits of Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, he depicts a mirror image of himself. With little money to pay for models to paint and a lack of commissions coming in, Van Gogh decided to paint himself and created around 30 self-portraits in total.

Self-portrait with grey felt hat (September 1887 - October 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Van Gogh believed that portrait painting would help him develop his skills as an artist. He was once quoted as saying: "If I can manage to paint the coloring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women”. Zoom into van Gogh's images below to see the layers of color and individual brushstrokes the artist built up on the canvas in order to convey a certain atmosphere and mood.

Self Portrait (1940) by Lois Mailou JonesSmithsonian American Art Museum

Lois Mailou Jones

In this particular self-portrait by American artist Lois Mailou Jones from 1940, an exploration of identity is apparent. While Jones didn’t travel to Africa until 1970, age 65, here the forms and vibrant color she associated with the ceremonies of Africa are infused in the form of allusions to traditional African sculpture within the work.

Jones' work echoes her pride in her African roots and American ancestry and she felt that her greatest contribution to the art world was "proof of the talent of black artists". She wished to be known as an American painter with no labels.

Self-Portrait (1940) by Victor BrecheretMASP - Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand

Victor Brecheret

Victor Brecheret was an Italian-Brazilian sculptor whose work was a combination of European modernist sculpture with references to his native country through the physical characteristic of his human forms.

In this three-dimensional self-portrait created in 1940, Brecheret draws upon motifs from Brazilian folk art and combines them with clean lines and the smoothness and weight of bronze.

In the mirror: self portrait with Joy Hester (1939) by Albert TuckerNational Portrait Gallery

Albert Tucker

Known better for his paintings, 20th century Australian artist Albert Tucker was also an enthusiastic photographer. In this self-portrait, he appears with his wife Joy Hester, a kindred spirit in her passion for creating art.

Though it captures two people instead of the typical one, the candid shot feels intimate as the viewer is left questioning the relationship between the subjects.

Madonna (Self-Portrait) (1975) by Cindy ShermanSCAD Museum of Art

Cindy Sherman

American photographer and director Cindy Sherman’s conceptual works stretch the idea of the self-portrait and highlight the ways in which photography can be manipulated to portray what the artist wants us to see.

Untitled (1980) by Cindy ShermanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A playful balance between parody and caricature, Sherman’s works are character studies that make the viewer question everything. She explores identity and the nature of representation using movies, TV, magazines, and art history as her inspiration.

Self Portrait With Fried Eggs 1996 (1999) by Sarah LucasBritish Council

Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas, part of the Young British Artists who emerged during the 1990s, created a series of 12 self-portraits from 1990 to 1998. Photographic self-portraits have become an important part of Lucas’ work in the way they’ve given the artist room to explore various aspects of herself and challenge stereotypical ideas of identity.

Lucas is concerned with the casual misogyny of everyday life and her works frequently employ visual puns and bawdy humor to explore this. As well as photography, she uses collage and found objects to execute her ideas.

Excellences Excellences and Perfections Perfections (Episode 03) 14th September 2014 (2014/2014) by Amalia UlmanThe Moving Museum

Amalia Ulman

Coming to the art world’s attention in 2014 for her Instagram-based art project, Amalia Ulman’s work is a sociological critique and a blurring of fact and fiction. Excellences and Perfections is a compilation of around 200 low-fi selfies that Ulman placed periodically on her Instagram account and presented a semi-fictionalized makeover to her followers.

Excellences Excellences and Perfections Perfections (Episode 03) 14th September 2014 (2014/2014) by Amalia UlmanThe Moving Museum

The artist took the project to extremes when she underwent plastic surgery getting fillers and a staged boob job. Her account amassed 65,000 confused followers while it was live. Combining self-portraiture with a kind of performance art for the digital age, Ulman demonstrated how far the self-portrait can be taken and the dialogue that can be created.

Arthur Elgort Self Portrait (2012-01-01) by Arthur ElgortCondé Nast Archive

To discover even more selfies and self-portraits, check out our time and color tool. Here you can look at selfies painted way back in the 15th century and compare them to ones created today, or unearth the color palettes adopted by different artists and see the similarities between them.

Self Portrait (1940) by Lois Mailou JonesSmithsonian American Art Museum

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