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. 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-portraits can be occupational portraits as well. On the left, Gilbert Stuart, most famous for his iconic portrait of George Washington, makes a sketch of himself sketching and on the right, artist George Bellows shows himself drawing on a lithographic stone.
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.
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 below:Mirrors offer a wonderful opportunity for self-portraits for photographers, as seen in the two examples below, and a chance to display the camera being used as well.
Cartoonists and caricaturists sometimes turned their pens or pencils on themselves, as Thomas Nast demonstrates. On the left, 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. On the right, 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.
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.