A 17th Century Selfie Documentary

These days, the ubiquitous selfie has become the a common form of self-expression, easily created and shared with online “friends” or made public on social media. While taking excessive selfies can seem narcissistic and self-absorbed, selfies construct personal identity and document life experiences over time, contributing to greater self-awareness. For instance, Hugo Cornellier (2014) and Christophe Rehage (2009) created time-lapse videos of selfies spanning several years of their life to document important experiences.

Although technology has certainly contributed to our obsession with public self-promotion, the idea of self-documentation is not a modern invention. Take Rembrandt van Rijn, a Dutch master from the 1600s, as an example. In addition to his exquisite paintings, etchings, engravings, and drawings, Rembrandt produced almost 100 self-portraits throughout the course of his life. With a little bit of biographical context, these works trace the timeline of his life and his art.

Early Beginnings:

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait of 1629

Born in Leiden in 1606, Rembrandt attended Latin school and enrolled at the Leiden University. However, he left soon after to train with painters in Leiden and Amsterdam. By age 23, Rembrandt had set up a personal studio and taken his first students. In these early beginnings of his career, Rembrandt produced the Self-Portrait of 1629 that showcases his youth and talent. In particular, this work showcases his mastery of light and shadow through a technique called chiaroscuro, which uses stark contrasts of bright light with areas of darkness to create visual and emotional impact. This painting shows half of Rembrandt’s face in shadow and the other half strongly illuminated, focusing on his visual emergence from the shadows, which parallels the state of his career as a young painter just beginning to emerge into the art scene of the Dutch Republic.

Midlife Success: 

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait of 1640

Rembrandt quickly became famous and respected in the Netherlands, known especially for his portraits and his revolutionary printing techniques. He developed a successful art business with his mentor, married his love Saskia van Uylenburgh, and eventually bought a beautiful house in Amsterdam. As he reached the peak of his career, his Self Portrait of 1640 reflects both his prosperity and his creative advancements.

Titian, Man with a Blue Sleeve, 1509

Wealthy, confident, and wise, Rembrandt appears striking in his elegant attire and semi-active pose, which seems to quote Titian‘s celebrated Man with a Blue Sleeve of the previous century. Interestingly, Rembrandt chose to dress himself in antiquated clothes from the early 1500s, aligning himself with earlier artistic traditions and the wisdom of previous “masters” like Titian. Nevertheless, Rembrandt preserved the distinctive scruffy hair and slightly bulbous nose of his early portrait, as well as the dark palette and plain, shadowy background that became hallmarks of his paintings.With something old, something new, something borrowed (something blue), Rembrandt established himself as a brilliant artist and businessman in his own right.

Late Decline:

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles, 1660

In 1642, Rembrandt’s wife died, and so began the decline of his financial and family life, under the weight of crippling debts, tumultuous relationships, legal entanglements, and worsening health. He remained artistically productive, creating introspective and thoughtful works, although his style was no longer as popular with the public. His Self Portrait with Two Circles of 1660 certainly reflects the passage of time, revealing whiter hair, simpler clothing, and a tired expression.

At the same time, by painting himself with his palette and his canvases, Rembrandt highlights his art as the most important part of his identity, an expression of his enduring genius. Behind him, the canvas exhibits two perfect circles, a simple, austere and pure expression of a basic visual building block, calling to mind the importance of Classical geometry in artistic history, most poignantly described in the famous story of Giotto’s O. Despite the ups and downs of his life, the beauty and wisdom of his art remained a permanent and timeless expression of his personal identity.

Through his self-portraits, Rembrandt collected snapshots of his life experiences and his personal perspectives as they evolved over time, just as the selfie time-lapse videos document a personal journey of growth. While each portrait would have taken Rembrandt several months to complete, today we have the opportunity to create selfies in seconds, capturing daily moments and emotions that artists take years to record. This impulse for self-representation is part of a human desire to know ourselves, to judge ourselves, and to keep a little piece of ourselves for the future, so that when we choose to look back on the past, we can find snippets of who we used to be. Perhaps we live too much in the moment thanks to our technological advances, but selfies are undoubtedly a treasure chest of memories that our future will learn from, just as we are learning from the portraits of our ancestors.

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3 thoughts on “A 17th Century Selfie Documentary

  1. I love how you took the concept of “selfies” as we know them now and weaved it into an art history lesson about self-portraits and self-expression. It’s interesting how the self-portrait can be traced throughout history and reflect not only a person’s life but their advances as an artist. Great post!

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  2. I really loved this post and how you illuminated the history of “the selfie” and how it is more than just a narcissistic activity. I find it interesting that visual personal identity began with portraits. I’m not familiar with techniques used by artists and the purpose behind their works. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the present day selfie since you mentioned it and trying to connect it to aspects of art from the past. For instance, I know some people who would get dressed a certain way just to take a picture, then change afterwards. I thought of that as you described Rembrandt purposely dressing a certain way.

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    • Yes, you are absolutely right! That also reflects how important outward appearance can be in presenting oneself through a more permanent image. Actually, it is great that you bring this up, because paintings, like Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits, would take months (or years) to finish, while the selfies we take today are put together in minutes or seconds! Also, a painter would have time to make corrections to his work and change the direction of his portrait mid-way, while we would simply have to snap a different selfie, So time is a really important dimension here, since one self-portrait probably encompasses a more broad and profound self-consciousness of the artist at that particular time in his/her life than most selfies would.

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