One day last month, a man named Narcissus wandered into the bathroom at his girlfriend’s apartment, only to discover that it contained the perfect lighting for mirror selfies. Jealous that she had kept this fact hidden from him for so long, he took photo after photo of himself until his phone’s battery reached zero. Dumbfounded by the beauty of the light gracing the man that stared back at him and unsure of what to do next, he continued to stare longingly at his own reflection. After hours of trying to convince him to leave the bathroom, Narcissus’ girlfriend (with a little help from the fire department) was finally able to get through the locked door, only to find Narcissus lying on the floor, weak from hunger, gripping the magnifying mirror she kept on the counter for all he was worth.
So maybe this was not actually how Narcissus’ story went, and yet perhaps the comparison is not too far off target, given the prolific number of selfies this generation is known for taking. But is an obsession with one’s self really a new idea? Or is there perhaps a genuine reason the story of Narcissus was written thousands of years ago, long before the invention of cell phone cameras (and maybe even before the invention of mirrors)?
Are Selfies A New Thing?
In reality, the selfie-takers of today are joining a long line of modern artists who are famous (and undoubtedly infamous) for their self-portraiture. Aided by digital technology, this young artist may snap up to 40 or 50 photos in a single session. These modern works of art may never find themselves hanging inside of a museum; however, some may forever be immortalized on one’s Twitter or Instagram feed.
To better improve our self-portraiture, let’s examine some of the masters to learn more about the importance (or lack thereof) of the selfie, and perhaps also glean a few tips along the way in order to improve our volumes of self-portrait work. While our selfie history lesson could begin much earlier, we’ll focus on the last few hundred years or so for brevity’s sake.
Selfie Master #1: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Let’s begin in the Netherlands with a man named Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn; we’ll call him Rembrandt (again, for brevity’s sake). Known for his masterful use of light and show, Rembrandt executed many portraits that pushed forward the Dutch Realism style of painting. He painted over 40 self-portraits and his prolific body of work is said to reflect subdued emotions and the quiet spirit of his Calvinistic beliefs. Tip number one for selfies today, brought to you by a 16th century Dutch painter is this: lighting is VERY important.
Selfie Master #2: Vincent Van Gogh
Next, and never one to be outdone, Vincent Van Gogh, some 250 years later, painted 43 portraits of himself in a mere THREE YEAR span. He even painted self-portraits with a bandage over his ear following the episode in his life in which he had cut off his ear (plot twist: historians now think he might have actually lost it in a fight). Lesson number two: a significant quantity of photos of oneself is quite okay – they capture the stages in one’s life. Also, a painting of himself, Portrait of the Artist Without a Beard, is also the most expensive self-portrait sold at an auction – going for $71.5 million in 1998. #goals
Selfie Master #3: Frida Kahlo
There’s sometimes a more serious and somber side to selfies, too: after becoming crippled from a car accident, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo painted over 50 portraits of herself. These portraits, sometimes graphic and visceral in nature, portray her pain and suffering as she dealt with the trauma of the accident and her physical limitations afterwards. Left with no model but herself, she painted illustrations of the only subject she had. Lesson number 3: it might actually be possible for self-portraits to help heal a person – self-expression in the face of trauma can be very therapeutic. Although perhaps there is a second part to this lesson from Kahlo, too: medium matters. In times of reflection and healing, taking the time and concentrating on a drawing or painting will allow the proper space to process – by taking the time to try and express our pain, we can come to terms with it and can begin to heal.
Selfie Master #4: Andy Warhol
Now we all know that all good essays come with three points, but if we are really clever, we will sneak in a fourth. That said, selfie-tip-from-a-master-number 4 is this: innovate. Who knows? Maybe one day you too will be rich and famous. Known for bringing popular culture into museums and gaining acceptance for it as fine art, Andy Warhol combined graphic design, artistic expression, celebrity or popular culture. Warhol’s 1986 painting, Six Self Portraits, is indicative of his PopArt style and sold in 2014 for $26.7 million, making it the second most expensive self-portrait sold at auction. (Bonus tip: having a recognizable aesthetic can lead to great things.)
Summing It All Up: 4 Lessons
The overarching lesson learned here is this: humans have been obsessed with themselves for thousands of years. Long before the widespread production of even the mirror, people were inventing stories that critiqued self-obsession. Thousands of years later, anyone with a camera may be proving their ancestors right. But never fear, because generations of artistic masters have paved the way for the selfies of today. While photos of yourself should probably not be your only artistic pursuit, they can be a worthwhile forum of self-expression, self-love, and even maybe healing. Tell the haters you’re just following in the legendary footsteps of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Kahlo, or Warhol, and remember these four things:
- Lighting. Lighting. Lighting. Never too harsh, never too soft.
- Selfies capture stories. Tell yours.
- Self(ie) expressions can be therapeutic.
- You do get points (and, maybe someday, money) for originality.
So get out there and smile for your camera!