Feb 12, 2016
In 1506, at the age of 23, Raphael produced a beautiful self-portrait now found in Florence's Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo da Vinci also gave us a picture of himself in his 1512 Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk. Likewise, Michelangelo left us his portrait by placing his own face on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel's Last Judgment. And then there is Van Gogh. He painted thirty-seven self-portraits between 1886 and 1889. Ever since the Renaissance, artists have been depicting themselves in their own works.
Self-portraits are about status. They spring from the desire to remain important and famous in future generations. With the advent of better mirrors in the Renaissance, it became easier for an artist to leave us his own image. As Dr. Terri Apter, psychology lecturer at Cambridge University has remarked, "People who had access to self-representations were keen to make use of them. In this way, people could control the image projected, and, of course, the fact that the image was on display marked the importance and status of the person represented."
It is not by chance that self-portraits developed during the Renaissance. The revived interest in classical Greece and Rome gave birth to a humanism that placed great emphasis on the individual. Promoting the uniqueness of each person paved the way for artists to ply their art to produce portraits of famous people as well as themselves. Likewise, it is not by chance that, today, the art of self-portraits has exploded into "the culture of selfies." This is an age of undiminished individualism.
In America, the turmoil of the 1960s broke down respect for political institutions and authority. It made people less idealistic about improving society and more concerned with their own lives and happiness. Tom Wolfe had his finger on the pulse of this changing culture. In the August 23, 1976 cover story of New York magazine, he baptized the 1970s as the "me generation." The individual had taken center stage.