Exhibition: “Selfies” at the Mauritshuis

No fan of people taking selfies (see “selfie, selfie”), I did admire twenty-seven such pictures, early October 2015. For the Mauritshuis’ has an exhibition on selfies. Not just any selfies: visitors can admire twenty-seven self-portraits by Dutch Golden Age painters.

This exhibition is not as popular as their Frick’s (see “La Princesse de Broglie“), but is just as fascinating. For a start, visitors have a chance to see what many of the painters behind famous paintings looked like.

This exhibition also explains why painters painted their “selfies” and how they used them: to demonstrate abilities, skills, talents; to attract clients and beat the competition; to show off rewards and successes; as family mementoes. To name a few examples.

The twenty-seven portraits are organised per two or four, according to various themes. A few painters play with time. They imply a customer’s painting will outlast him. Moreover, a painter’s brush can photo-shop just as well, as modern software.

Other painters ensure their self-portraits end up as promotion material in books extolling the qualities of painting and painters. Or use their portrait to illustrate their talents and how their art is just part of a tradition going back to Greek and Roman times.

Some like to stress how well-educated they are. Others show how influential and successful they have become. And of course: what the painter can do to promote himself .. can easily be done for you in your portrait. Who dares claim marketing and sales or pitching are modern inventions?

The earliest examples being shown, date from the late 16th century. But with twenty-seven works, it only takes a few steps and one faces self-portraits by painters whose works now hang in museums all over the world. Take Rembrandt: he was clearly obsessed with “selfies”. He painted himself countless times – where others painted themselves once or twice, or like Vermeer: never at all.

Rembrandt chronicled his face from an early age right up to the last year of his life. His self-portrait in this exhibition, shows him as an old man: no longer a successful and sought-after Amsterdam painter. No: he went bankrupt, lost his wife, then his son, lost everything but his great talent – which no longer buys him bread.

Right next to Rembrandt’s portrait hangs an unfamiliar face. One of Rembrandt’s students painted it in a nearly impressionistic style. It is no business card or proof of talent, but probably just a study. Perhaps a “selfie” to be used in later paintings.

Paintings this painter never created, or which were destroyed. For this self-portrait is one of only a dozen paintings left by Carel Fabritius, who died tragically in Delft. Unfamiliar with the man? He painted “The Goldfinch”, which can be admired in an other part of this museum.

The Rembrandt-Fabritius or master-pupil theme, is but one of many in this exhibition. Other themes include “I made it”, or “here I am, busy at work”. A self-portrait incorporating both themes, is the delightful “selfie” by Judith Leyster.

She “captures” herself painting one of her own paintings – dressed in the kind of expensive fineries no painter busy at work would ever wear. Nevertheless, her self-advertising portrait showing off her skills, wealth, the kind of paintings she sells and the influences of Frans Hals, is charming. Imagine being her client: it may cost you a fortune, but you and Judith will have such fun, while you sit for your portrait!

Judith is not the only one showing off her success. There are plenty painters portraying themselves not as artists, but as members of the ruling classes. In these portraits, brushes and palettes are left out. Their “selfies” serve to promote a totally different image.

Other portraits are clearly intended for the “family album” only. There is a naughty hunting-scene self-portrait full of sexual hints. Its counterpart – the painter’s wife – is not hanging next to it. Her portrait does not fit in with the self-portrait theme, but one does wonder: what did he paint into her’s?

The exhibition ends with a series of paintings by Gerard Dou and Frans van Mieris and family members: the Leiden “fijnschilders”. Their “selfies” show their nearly photographic art, including fabulous velvet reflection, or the woven structure of carpets and drapes.

This exhibition offers more to admire and discover. The accompanying video with English subtitles, provides background information. It also explains do’s and dont’s of taking your own selfies, so you can enter the Mauritshuis’ selfie contest.

Important features of this exhibition are its large mirrors. These reflect the many portraits, as well as all visitors, quite a few of whom are … taking selfies. There can hardly be a more fitting running comment on mankind’s fascination with his image and the impression he makes on others. As one of the self-portraits states: vanitas vanitatum – omnia vanitas!

This exhibition runs till January 3rd, 2016.
Museum website: Mauritshuis The Hague.

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