A Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait Is at the Center of a New Exhibition on the ‘Art of the Selfie’

The National Museum Cardiff is encouraging visitors to snap photos with the 1887 artwork, which is on view in Wales for the first time

Van Gogh’s Portrait of the Artist (1887)
Portrait of the Artist, Vincent van Gogh, 1887 National Museum Cardiff

Are self-portraits the predecessors of modern-day selfies? What if they’re created by renowned artists like Vincent van Gogh?

The National Museum Cardiff has decided to explore this question in a new exhibition, “Art of the Selfie.” The show is built around the Dutch painter’s Portrait of the Artist (1887), which is now on display in Wales for the first time.

“Self-portraits and selfies are two different things, but they do have something in common: Both are used to show who you are as a person,” the museum writes on its website. “Out of all the ways we document our lives, selfies have become a popular method of self-expression and individualism. The works on display show the different ways in which artists have chosen to characterize themselves in the same way we present and share images of ourselves today.”

Portrait of the Artist is on loan as part of a trade with Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, which had previously asked to borrow Renoir’s The Blue Lady for its upcoming exhibition, “Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism.”

The Blue Lady was painted in 1874, so it just made sense we should allow her to go back to her birthplace, go on her holidays with old friends,” Kath Davies, director of collections and research at Museum Wales, tells the Guardian’s Steven Morris. “But she was going to leave a gap. So we suggested: If you’re taking one of our iconic works, could you reciprocate and send something that’s really meaningful, one of your star objects?”

Van Gogh created around 35 self-portraits, many of which he completed because he was strapped for cash and couldn’t afford to hire a model. Despite these circumstances, the artist poured himself into these vivid, colorful works of introspection, which he saw as a vehicle to communicate certain ineffable qualities of his inner life’s landscape.

“I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer,” van Gogh once wrote to his sister. In a letter to his brother, he added: “People say—and I’m quite willing to believe it—that it’s difficult to know oneself—but it’s not easy to paint oneself either.”

“Art of the Selfie” features about a dozen pieces, showcasing how various artists—including RembrandtBrenda ChamberlainFrancis Bacon and Bedwyr Williams—have approached the task of depicting themselves in their work.

One of the self-portraits on view is by Anya Paintsil, a contemporary artist who draws on her Welsh and Ghanaian heritage. Her contribution is a textile piece that portrays her as Blodeuwedd, a character made of flowers from Welsh folklore.

This piece provides a “different perspective of what self-portrait might mean,” Dawn Bowden, Wales’ deputy minister for culture and sport, tells BBC News.

She adds: “This is a really small exhibition and so intimate that it gives you the time to explore the works in depth. There are only 14 works here, but each one brings a different perspective.”

Art of the Selfie” is on view at the National Museum Cardiff in Wales through January 26, 2025.

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