Louis Wise on the history of the original selfie

Two metal busts of a man pulling funny faces.

In celebration of Soho House Amsterdam's self-portrait collection, writer Louis Wise examines the history of the selfie: from artistic expression to modern dilemma

By Louis Wise   Wednesday 29 January, 2020

A small thing people tend to overlook when charting Rihanna’s shift from pop singer to billionaire beauty mogul was that phase when she just took selfies – a lot of selfies. After launching her @badgalriri Instagram account in 2012, the Barbadian star posted some 230 self-portraits in a single year. I mention this because it wasn’t just a narcissistic blip, it was actually the most important artistic thing she did this decade – although, yes, ‘Work’ ft. Drake does come close. What has more currency than a selfie? Since RiRi has built a billion-dollar beauty and fashion empire off the back of them, you’d have to say not very much. 

Wikipedia describes a selfie as a ‘self-portrait digital photograph’ and the term was named word of the year in 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries. However, the self-portrait obviously has a much longer history than that. For millennia, human beings have portrayed themselves doing things, from hunting for food to staring in a mirror. It’s fair to say, though, that as the centuries have crept on, the quantity of self-portraits has expanded ever quicker, with men and women scrutinising – and selling – themselves more and more via canvas, stone and now screen. Most great artists have done one at some point, although some are specialists in the genre, notably Rembrandt, Goya, Frida Kahlo, Picasso and Cindy Sherman. Back in the 1730s, the British painter Jonathan Richardson drew a quick self-portrait every day. The speed and informality, the sense of things changing hour to hour, make Richardson’s approach the most obvious precursor to the selfie. Although it’s safe to say that the artist, a jowly white man in his sixties from Bishopsgate, would probably have had limited use for Rihanna’s top tips. ‘Get a good light… Get a good angle on what’s working for you that day,’ she advised back in 2013. ‘If it’s boobs, make sure you hit that. If it’s face, make sure it’s fierce.’ 

Two things have intensified our approach to the self-portrait: the tools at our disposal and the take we have on ourselves. Firstly, the advent of the camera, followed by the cameraphone, has meant that pretty much everyone can be a self-portraitist. Turning the lens on yourself isn’t just a quirky thing you might try, but a default activity to be done idly in bed, at a party or on public transport. It’s not guaranteed that every selfie produced is necessarily going to be ‘art’, but since nowadays people say anyone can be an artist, it’s not guaranteed that it’s not all art, either. Instagram is the most important gallery on earth. Secondly, it’s the ‘self’ bit that has changed radically. Believe it or not, there was a time when we didn’t really talk about having a ‘self’ at all. We weren’t always individuals preoccupied with self-love, self-hate or the current Holy Grail, self-care. Shakespeare’s sonnets, written at the end of the 16th century, are cited as some of the earliest examples of literature, charting a writer’s preoccupation not only with their loved ones but also with moi as a concrete thing.
books with names of parts of the body on spine
The Renaissance had triggered man’s greater interest in man, with God beginning to be slowly pushed off his perch. And so, around the same time, artists like Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Titian weren’t just portraying the usual Medicis and Madonnas – they were also chronicling themselves. Often this was, admittedly, under the guise of something else: Michelangelo depicted his own face in a piece of flayed skin on the wall of the Sistine Chapel (some definite self-love issues there), while Caravaggio makes us positively queasy with his 1594 portrayal as a ‘Sick Bacchus’. These pictures aren’t always clearly saying, ‘This is me!’ And they’re certainly not saying, ‘This is the real me’, whatever that is. But they are using their faces and bodies to ask questions about who they are, or at least what they seem to be. The self-portrait has posed all sorts of artistic and philosophical questions, even though the language used to do so has changed. The first dedicated collection of painted self-portraits was started, by the way, in 1664 by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici. It still survives today in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, hung in the legendary Vasari Corridor. But the actual term ‘self-portrait’, in English at least, only surfaced in 1831. 

Shockingly, a self-portrait hasn’t always been about sex, either. Indeed, you could argue that the modern selfie, so often taken in a bedroom, nightclub or on a beach, doesn’t so much have to do with the progress of art as the spread of pornography. But at the risk of seeming a bit puritan, I would suggest that some of the very best self-portraits are not thirst traps. Take the gender-bending pictures taken by Claude Cahun, who died in 1954, or the late-18th century busts sculpted by the Austrian Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. After his death in 1783, he left 69 versions of himself making all sorts of extraordinary grimaces, called Character Heads; titles later given to these include ‘Weepy Old Man’, ‘Grief Locked Up Inside’ and ‘The Incapable Bassoonist’. Are these portrayals more honest or less honest for being so strange, so absurd? Does a collection of 69 faces provide a truer picture of someone than just one ever could? Nothing about the self-portrait is 100 per cent definite, because the self is never a definite thing, either. One thing remains timeless, though: ‘if it’s boobs, make sure you hit that.’