This article is presented by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Visit the groundbreaking exhibition Donatello, Michelangelo, Cellini: Sculptors’ Drawings from Renaissance Italy and attend accompanying lecture Oliver Tostmann: Baccio Bandinelli’s Self-Portrait, Or How to Paint a Sculptor’s Portrait Thursday, October 23.   

Ah, the selfie. Made famous by exhibitionist celebs like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, the smartphone snap of oneself has flourished into a full-fledged phenomenon. From legions of tween tweeters to his holiness Pope Francis himself, it seems the world has gone a little selfie-crazy. Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” the “Word of the Year” in 2013, Ellen DeGeneres broke the internet with her celeb-packed Oscar selfie, and soon, the world will be gifted with a 352-page book comprised of nothing but selfies, courtesy of prolific selfie-er Kim Kardashian.

It seems the selfie is taking over the world, but what does the selfie say about us as a culture?

Nothing good, many would contend. For every selfie-taker, there seems to be a selfie-hater. But a new exhibition at the Gardner Museum featuring a self-portrait of Renaissance sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (pictured) has us thinking—the selfie is a trend that goes back generations. 

In fact, the act of self-representation can be traced back to the dawn of humanity. Thousand-year-old cave paintings show humans attempting to recreate images of themselves. The self-portrait is the obvious artistic antecedent to the selfie. Francesco Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) has been identified by some as “the first selfie,” given it carries many of the photo trend’s hallmarks, from the intimate close-up angle to the elongated arm. Others credit Robert Cornelius, who took the world’s first photographic self-portrait in 1839. 

Such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn (pictured in this self-portrait, also from the Gardner Museum), Vincent Van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo dabbled in and revolutionized the art of the self-portrait.

 Is not the selfie simply the latest evolution in self-portraiture? While the art form was once limited to the province of artists, nowadays, anyone with a smartphone can create images of themselves and share it with the universe. The selfie is the self-portrait democratized.

Yet selfies are often denounced as vain cries for attention while artists’ self-portraits are revered as masterpieces.  

Okay, so selfies are the screw-top bottle of wine, meant to be shared in the moment with the masses, whereas artistic self-portraits are enduring vintages, meant to be enjoyed many years from that moment. But despite differences in media, process, and distribution, selfies and self-portraits are both inspired by the same basic human desire: to express who you are on your own terms.

“I think smartphone selfies come out of the same impulse as Rembrandt’s – to make yourself look awesome,” Kyle Chayka, curator of the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, told Time.

Both originate from the human need to reveal oneself to the world, but more importantly, to be the author of your own image. Selfies are more than pouty-lipped celebrities: they’re about taking control of your own identity.

Rather than condemn this photo fad, let’s celebrate it as a venerable tradition of self-expression. There might be more to that duckface than we think. Long live the #selfie.

To dive deeper into the origins of the selfie, attend Oliver Tostmann: Baccio Bandinelli’s Self-Portrait, Or How to Paint a Sculptor’s Portrait Thursday, October 23. Olivier Tostmann will discuss the history and context of one of history’s most unusual self-portraits. 


Photo Credits: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum