Norman Rockwell didn’t have an iPhone or Android, yet he was able to produce one of the world’s best-known selfies.
He called it “Triple Self-Portrait,” showing himself from the back looking into a mirror while painting a portrait of himself on a canvas. A lithograph of Rockwell’s selfie hangs in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s exhibit, “The Artist Revealed: Artist Portraits & Self-Portraits.” The show runs through April 3, bringing together 50 works selected from the holdings of the Syracuse University Art Galleries.
“When you look closely at Rockwell’s self-portrait, you’ll see that he’s painting himself much younger than his reflection in the mirror,” says Elizabeth Weinstein, the museum’s director of Art Interpretation and curator. “He was painting his portrait as he saw himself.”
Which was an advantage artists had over their mobile phone selfie-taking counterparts. Digital technology may offer instant gratification, but it’s designed to capture the here-and-now. The artists’ portraits can transcend place and time, producing a look at the inner person, as well as the outer.
“We were interested in this exhibit, because portraiture is more relevant to our everyday lives than ever,” Weinstein says. “Samsung introduced the first cellphone with a built-in camera in 2000, and now you see everyone taking photos of themselves, the pictures we call selfies. But self-potraits were popular long before that.”
Their popularity began long before the works on the museum’s Lower Main Gallery walls, which range from 1857 to 1992.
“The self-portrait has been around since the beginning of time,” Weinstein says. “People have always been fascinated by faces — it’s a part of our make-up.”
Rembrandt painted himself in the seventh century, Weinstein says. “He is assumed to have depicted himself in approximately 40 to 50 paintings, about 32 etchings and seven drawings.
“And in the 1970s, it can be argued that Andy Warhol actually created the selfie as we know it today by taking Polaroids of himself.”
And the portraits of artists created by other artists? Well, these are friends making pictures of their friends.
Along with Rockwell, featured artists include Milton Avery, Chuck Close, Leonard Baskin, Edward Steichen, Norman Rockwell and Anders Zorn. Famous sitters include James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins, Ansel Adams, Charlie Chaplin, C.S. Lewis, Paul Robeson, James Joyce and Pablo Casals.
“While commissioned portraits often come with criteria and expectations, self-portraiture has none of these restrictions,” Weinstein says. “The artist is free to experiment.”
But an artist’s portrait of a peer doesn’t always have to be corralled by limitations. Some playful fun is thrown into the way some artists see each other.
Take artists husband and wife Henry and Maria Wickey, for instance.
“When you look at Henry’s humorous self-portrait of himself, you’ll notice that he sees himself as a strong man with muscles,” Weinstein says. “But his wife draws him as dowdy in the portrait next to it.”
Wickey was a New York artist from Ohio. He lived next door to artist Maria Rother, who befriended and eventually married him. He created his self-portrait at a time when he was visiting George Bothner’s gymnasium to watch wrestlers in training.
Does his muscular alter ego offer the same introspect as Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Potrait?” Weinstein thinks so.
“An effective portrait is more than a simple likeness,” she says. “A successful one offers the viewer insight into the personal characteristics that make the sitter a unique individual.”
With that in mind, Weinstein and her staff have set up an interactive area outside the gallery where visitors can incorporate the artists’ methods in creating their own portraits of others and self-portraits. This is where budding artists put their phones away and take a look at who they or their sitters are.
“This is a fun area, and our visitors not only learn about different art techniques but what goes into making an interesting portrait,” Weinstein says.