Once upon a time, to depict yourself, you needed a paintbrush or a pencil; now, your phone’s front-facing camera will suffice. When untold millions of selfies bob across social networks each day, it’s natural to feel nostalgic for the old craft of self-portraiture, and the time and skill artists lavished on their own representations. But the old-school self-portrait and the newfangled selfie have common aims: Both are showcases of personal secrets, broadcasts of political allegiances, and, more than anything, great ways to grandstand.
Self-portraiture has long served as a promotional tool, and has rarely rewarded modesty. In 1433, Jan van Eyck painted himself with gemlike hardness wearing a red turban, then added the sarcastic caption “As Well as I Can,” as if anyone would doubt his skill. The even more conceited Albrecht Dürer, in 1500, went so far as to paint himself as a dishy, smoldering Jesus Christ. The Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, born on New Year’s Eve 400 years ago, also saw self-portraiture as a means to boast of his technical acuity. But later, for this artist of the Spanish Golden Age, the self-portrait became something else: a testimony to a life transformed.