Selfies have taken over social media newsfeeds, filling screens with snapshots of people striking perfect poses in sublime settings, laughing with friends, or caught in quiet moments alone. These images appear inescapable, and in today’s social media-driven ecosystem, they’re often seen as self-indulgent or fueled by a need for affirmation and acceptance. But a deeper look at the practice shows the potential for an honest portrayal of one’s truest self—one that can make strong social statements, claim spaces, and communicate messages bigger and broader than the people bold enough to turn the lens on themselves.
Self-portraiture isn’t a byproduct of the smart phone. Since as early as the 15th century, women artists across different mediums used self-portraits as a way to meditate on the world around them and their places within it. More than just capturing physical features, self-portraits allow artists to channel their beliefs into their work in ways that are revealing and revolutionary, ultimately memorializing the woman and her story. Their art is both deeply personal and broadly relatable, giving readers an intimate look at a particular place and time and providing a platform to find common ground.
In many ways, these six women did more than just create art: They helped give way to a generation of voices around the world.
An American street photographer born in New York City, Vivian Maier is considered to be one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Her craft was her life, though she supported herself by working as a nanny for families in New York and then Chicago. Despite her artistic legacy and narrative influence on picturemaking, little is known about Maier.
Yet the discovery of 100,000 of Maier’s negatives and slides in 2007 offers clues to a woman compelled to photographing life on the street, capturing the poor and marginalized. Maier was often her own subject, photographing herself in mirrors, shop windows, and other reflective surfaces. In some, she discreetly made the pictures, almost as if she was spying on herself; in others, her expressionless face is front and center.
Google honored the 142nd birthday of Paula Modersohn-Becker with a doodle this past February, growing the influence of this German artist, starting with her recognition as the first woman to paint a nude self-portrait, which she created in 1906.
While her legacy is rooted in her bravado to depict herself in a way no woman had done before, Modersohn-Becker is equally celebrated for pioneering the modernist movement of the 20th century along with artists like Henri Matisse. Her parents wanted her to be a teacher, and unbeknownst to them, Modersohn-Becker’s works would go on to teach and inspire scholars and artists for generations to come.
Loïs Mailou Jones
Though Loïs Mailou Jones is mostly known for her watercolors and oil works, the Boston native made a mark exploring the duality of her identity, particularly in her own self-portrait. Much of her work from the 1930s features portraits of black Americans, part of a larger movement to illustrate the African-American experience while paying homage to African culture through her colors and form.
It wasn’t until 1940 that Jones cast herself as the subject of her own work, connecting her identity to traditional African culture. Though she explored her connection to Africa in much of her work, Jones was 65 when she first visited the continent, nearly 30 years after she produced her famous portrait.
Judith Leyster’s paintings were perpetually kinetic, illustrating scenes of one or two figures in joyous situations or capturing the energy of kids at play. Yet amongst the activity that jumps from much of Leyster’s work, her self-portrait is among one of her most attention-grabbing pieces, a departure from many renderings, particularly those of female artists, at the time.
Her work was largely unknown, and at times much of it was attributed to male artists who were active at the time; however, centuries later, Leyster has come to the surface as one of the foremost female artists of her generation: a bold, daring woman claiming a space for herself in a male-dominated industry.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about female artists famous for their self-portraits without mentioning Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist whose unibrow and slight mustache are known the world over. She was the star of her own show, and she used her creativity to highlight and applaud varying features of indigenous Mexican culture. Kahlo would paint herself solo, with monkeys, or lost in thoughts of her partner, the famous Diego Rivera. No matter the portrait, the moustache and unibrow were always present, two defining symbols and characteristics of a woman whose craft and influence knew no borders.
A photographer who used her art as a platform to advocate for the LGBTQ community in South Africa, Zanele Muholi began her career documenting those around her before becoming her own subject. Her project, maID, is an ongoing series of black-and-white self-portraits reflecting historic political events throughout South Africa’s history. For Muholi, the self-portrait is a deliberately vulnerable act, one that she has said is no easy feat for her to accomplish. In the series, Muholi darkens her skin tone, celebrating her blackness and offering a contrast to the way black women are often depicted in the wider media space.