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History of the selfie

Self-promotion? Narcissism? Or a window into the artist’s psyche? We take a whistle-stop tour through the history of self-portraiture in Britain, from cocky court painters to radical refugees.

‘The selfie’ as we know it dates back to the 15th century, when artists across Europe - most prolifically the German artist Albrecht Dürer - started creating works in which they themselves were the main subject.

Perhaps because of England’s deep-seated suspicion of self-promotion, English artists were slow to adopt the new form, but selfies came to the British Isles through the arrival of court painters from mainland Europe. Gerlach Flicke, a German artist who worked in the Tudor court, painted England’s earliest-known self-portrait (1) while imprisoned with the ‘gentleman pirate’ Henry Strangwish.

The court painters - led by Van Dyck himself - continued creating self-portraits, as much out of bravado as to further their reputations. A 1660 self-portrait by Van Dyck’s successor, Peter Lely, radiates arrogance (2): the artist peers down his nose at the viewer, his chin cocked slightly upwards, his fist clenched around a nude female statuette.

But selfies in England weren’t dominated by imported talent - or men - for long. Lely befriended Mary Beale, Britain’s first professional female painter, passing on his unwanted commissions to her. Beale used self-portraits to shape her public perception at a time when many women lived in their families’ shadows. Posing with a painting of her children, rather than with the children themselves, Beale presents herself as an artist first and a mother second (3).

William Hogarth, the first British-born artist to gain wider recognition abroad, went even further in portraying himself as a dedicated craftsman. A Hogarth selfie from 1757 (4) shows him fixated on his canvas, neither concerning himself with the viewer nor flattering his appearance. Maybe Hogarth thought the perceived vanity shown by European artists in their self-portraits made their work inferior: the canvas used for his self-portrait originally showed his dog urinating on a collection of Old Master drawings. Hogarth’s contemporary Joshua Reynolds also painted himself at work, but peering out of the canvas - not at the viewer, but towards his own reflection, as he studies a mirror to capture his own likeness (5).

While Hogarth’s self-portrait has a patriotic subtext, the selfie has also been an important tool for émigré artists looking to bridge the gap between cultures and establish themselves in England. As young artists, both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Isaac Rosenberg (whose parents fled to Britain to escape oppression in Italy and Latvia respectively) projected their identities through confident self-portraits (6 and 7), locking the viewer’s gaze with an unflinching stare.

Smartphones make it possible for anyone to take an instant selfie these days, but for Frank Auerbach creating a self-portrait was a protracted artistic struggle. Started in 1994 and completed in 2001, his monochrome self-portrait (8) was continually erased and redrawn as the artist chased a self that always remained just out of reach