Self-portraits: How people took selfies in the past

As the craze for selfies – self-portraits taken with hand-held cameras or phones – continues to sweep the nation, Julian Humphrys offers a snapshot of how people have created images of themselves down the centuries

Robert Cornelius poses for the camera in what is believed to be the world's first self-portrait produced by a photograph, 1839. (Robert Cornelius/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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What’s the earliest known self-portrait?

A stele (stone slab) carved in about 1365 BC and now in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin depicts Pharaoh Akhenaton’s chief sculptor, Bek, and his wife, Taheri. As it’s likely that Bek produced this high-quality work himself, it can claim to be the world’s earliest known self-portrait.

When did artists in western Europe start painting self-portraits?

Many medieval artists inserted portraits of themselves in paintings they produced for others, often as figures in a crowd, but they were not the primary subjects of the work and these are perhaps best seen as pictorial signatures. One of the earliest true self-portraits may well be Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Turban, painted in 1433. One thing that would help the would-be self-portraitist at this time was the fact that mirrors were becoming much cheaper and easier to obtain.

Who was the first great European self-portraitist?

Nuremburg-born artist Albrecht Dürer was the first to make self-portraiture a significant part of his work. His Christ-like self-portrait in a fur-trimmed robe, painted in 1500 at the age of 28, is the best-known and most widely admired. Other notable exponents include Rembrandt, who produced dozens of pictures of himself, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Francisco Goya, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso.

Why paint self-portraits?

Motives could vary: introspection, self-promotion, practice, saving money. Vincent Van Gogh, who produced over 30 self-portraits between 1886 and 1889, saw it as a way of honing his skills at a time when he couldn’t afford to pay for a model. The development of photography has given anyone with a camera the opportunity to produce an image of themselves.

Who did it first?

Although some claim he needed help, it is believed to be Robert Cornelius from Philadelphia who took a daguerreotype photograph of himself in 1839. Unlike today’s instant imaging, the long exposure time meant that Cornelius would have to have stared, motionless, at the camera for a number of minutes.

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Julian Humphrys is Development Officer for the Battlefields Trust. He is the author of Clash of Arms: Twelve English Battles (English Heritage, 2007) and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine