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Self-portraits: The surprising history of the selfie

From the Renaissance to camera phones, here's how the selfie has evolved

Jan van Eyck self portrait, 1433

Image: First Self-Portrait Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait), 1433 Image: © The National Gallery, London

I’ll never forget the first time I saw this painting. I had popped into the National Gallery on a random lunchtime visit many years ago and despite its tiny size it stood out, even among the many masterpieces hanging around it. The simple head and shoulders portrait of a man is made suddenly dramatic by the intense reds and sweeping folds of his turban. Deep shadows in the background focus the attention firmly on to his face, which is bathed in a warm, raking light. It feels real and immediate – his steely blue eyes seem to fix us in the moment – and his gaze has a slightly uncanny power, at the same time both intense and slightly detached.

As well as this fascinating charisma, there was something even more remarkable about this painting which stuck in my mind. Those steely eyes belong to the painter himself – the Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck. For when it was painted, in 1433, it was – as far as we know – the first self-portrait for a thousand years. Not since Roman times had an artist looked in a mirror and sought to capture their own face.

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In a time when selfies are a part of everyday life, it seems bizarre that, for so long, no artist had thought of doing this. But throughout the middle ages, artists were not considered to be people of significance. They were just craftsmen. Portraits were the preserve of the rich and powerful: of kings, bishops and the nobility.

As it happened, van Eyck was also a court painter – he worked for Philip, the Duke of Burgundy, in Bruges. But Philip was a highly imaginative patron and he surrounded himself with intellectuals and free-thinkers, and he seems to have encouraged them to challenge conventions. Van Eyck, who loved to experiment and try new things, flourished. And in painting his own image, van Eyck opened the way to one of the most fascinating genres in the whole of art history. Self-portraits tell us so much – both about artists themselves and, counter-intuitively, about our own selves and what we are doing when we look at paintings.

This is because there is a fundamental combination of tensions and contradictions inherent in a self-portrait. For example, when you stand in front of such a picture, you think you are in charge of the looking process – that the painting is the object of your attention. Yet, once you know it is the artist himself, you can’t avoid the feeling that he is looking out of the picture at you.

In a sense, by meeting his gaze you have become his subject. A painting is not like a photo, it involves a long process of careful observation by the artist. And this is exactly how van Eyck would have looked at you had he been painting your portrait. Yet, when van Eyck painted himself, his eyes must, obviously, have been fixed on the mirror. So, in reality, you are looking at him looking at himself.

It’s all deliciously disorienting. And the confusion goes on. Are you really seeing the artist as he – or she – actually sees him or herself? Possibly. It’s true that some artists are fascinated by the possibilities of intense self-examination. And, over the centuries many artists have made self-portraits simply to practice – perhaps to learn how to capture a certain look or expression, a smile or a grimace. After all, using a mirror is cheaper than paying a model.

But, just as likely, you are seeing them as they wish to be seen. How many people, when posting a selfie on social media, for example, choose an unflattering picture of themselves? Most selfies are intended to project a positive image. People try different poses, adjust their clothes and hair, add filters – anything to enhance their self-image.

And the same is true of artists. In that first self-portrait van Eyck doesn’t just happen to be wearing that flamboyant turban. If he was really painting himself naturally, he would be wearing his artist’s smock. But instead, he has dressed in an expensive and showy way. It’s hard to see because the paint has darkened over time, but his gown is lined with costly fur. The portrait is clearly a statement of his success and social standing.

Many artists in the generations after van Eyck’s first self-portrait followed a similar path. They even took pains to disguise the fact that they were holding a paintbrush and engaged in their trade. They would do this either, as here, by ensuring that their painting arm was out of sight or simply depicting it in a different position. In fact, it wasn’t until 1548 that another Flemish painter, Catharina van Hemessen, became the first artist to depict themselves actually in the act of painting.

So next time you take a selfie remember that you are part of a long and subtle tradition. And you may be revealing more about yourself than you think.

Art Firsts book cover

Art Firsts by Nick Trend is out now (Laurence King, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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