Profiling Portraits: The Art of the Self-Portrait cover

Profiling Portraits: The Art of the Self-Portrait

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Let's look at a type of portrait, one which is very popular today, thanks to the advent of smartphones with cameras: self-portraits, commonly referred to as selfies. However, self-portraits have been around for hundreds of years, in many formats, not just photography.
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Profiling Portraits: The Art of the Self-Portrait

In the first entry in this occasional series, Profiling Portraits, we examined occupational portraits, a type of portrait designed to tell the viewer a specific fact about the sitter: their occupation. We will now look at another type of portrait, one which is very popular today, thanks to the advent of smartphones with cameras: self-portraits, commonly referred to as selfies.

However, self-portraits have been around for hundreds of years, in many formats, not just photography. The creator of a self-portrait has control over many aspects of the image, and therefore can convey information through the portrait beyond simple appearance.

[Gilbert Stuart, self-portrait, half-length, right profile, holding pencil or brush, drawing] Ink and wash drawing by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1783. //

The portrait can be serious or whimsical; it can soften features or exaggerate them. The artist can convey occupation through tools of their trade or even impart a message about their politics or opinions. Thanks to the vast scope of the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division, we can explore many examples of self-portraits, looking at graphic media such as etchings, engravings and lithographic portraits as well as hand-drawn images, and of course, photographs.

Self-portrait. Lithograph by George Bellows, 1921. //

Self-portraits can be occupational portraits as well. On the prior page, Gilbert Stuart, most famous for his iconic portrait of George Washington, makes a sketch of himself sketching and above, artist George Bellows shows himself drawing on a lithographic stone.

Travel impressions. Color offset print by Henry (Hy) Mayer. Published in Puck, v. 76, no. 1956 (1914 August 29). //

This charming two-page spread for the August 1914 issue of Puck magazine travels the world with its humorous impressions, and the artist himself, Henry Mayer (more commonly known as Hy Mayer) is at the center, writing out postcards.

[Family group – Smith, his wife and six children pointing at examples of their work]. Drawing by John Rubens Smith, between 1809 and 1849. //

Artist John Rubens Smith took his self-portrait a bit farther, including his wife and six children, plus all of their artistic efforts in the watercolor above.

Lititz, Pennsylvania. Self-portrait at a public sale. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942 Nov. //

Mirrors offer a wonderful opportunity for self-portraits for photographers, as seen in these next two examples, and a chance to display the camera being used as well.

Self portrait of photographer Carol M. Highsmith, via a broken mirror that she photographed during the Willard Hotel restoration. Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 1990. //

No rest for the wicked – sentenced to hard labor.Wood engraving by Thomas Nast. Published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 20, 1876 December 2. //

Cartoonists and caricaturists sometimes turned their pens or pencils on themselves, as Thomas Nast demonstrates. Above, we have Nast sharpening his pencil on a December 1876 cover of Harper’s Weekly, as he prepares to comment on the issues of the day with razor-sharp pencil – and wit.

T. Nast & Frank Leslie. Drawing by Thomas Nast, between 1860 and 1902. //

Here, Nast shares a rather self-effacing look at his first meeting with publisher Frank Leslie, where Nast appears to be drawing a strong contrast between his appearance and Leslie’s.

[Robert Cornelius, self-portrait; believed to be the earliest extant American portrait photo]. Daguerreotype by Robert Cornelius, 1839 [Oct. or Nov.] //

And of course, I can’t leave the topic of self-portraits without sharing the earliest known American self-portrait photograph, taken just a few months after Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype. Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia took this self-portrait in October or November 1839.

Learn More:

View additional examples of self-portraits in various formats in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Explore additional examples of Robert Cornelius’ work as a daguerreotypist.

See if you can spot the Photographer in the Picture in a Flickr album of the same name. We collected images from throughout our collections where the photographer appears in the photo, often in a reflection, and many appear to be quite inadvertent self-portraits!

Read previous Picture This posts on the subject of portraits, including the first post in this series - Profiling Portraits: Occupational Portraits of the 19th Century.