History’s Selfies: Looking at Artists Looking at Themselves

National Portrait Gallery closes out 50-year anniversary celebration after widening the view to include more women, diverse backgrounds and emerging media

Aliens Sans Frontières by Enrique Chagoya NPG, © 2016 Enrique Chagoya
Memorial To A Marriage by Patricia Cronin, modeled 2002, cast 2013 NPG, gift of Chuck Close © 2002 Patricial Cronin
Edward Hopper Self-Portrait by Edward Hopper, 1903 NPG
Lee Simonson Self-Portrait by Lee Simonson, c. 1912 NPG, gift of Karl and Jody Simonson
The Silver Goblet by Lucy May Stanton, 1912 NPG, gift of Mrs. Edward C. Loughlin
Self-Portrait with Rita by Thomas Hart Benton, c. 1924 NPG, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney
Alice Neel Self-Portrait by Alice Neel, 1980 NPG, © Estate of Alice Neel, 1980
Berenice Abbott Self-Portrait by Berenice Abbott, c. 1932 NPG, © Berenice Abbott/Getty Images
James Amos Porter Self-Portrait by James Amos Porter, 1957 NPG, gift of Dorothy Porter Wesley
Untitled (Self-Portrait) by Louise Nevelson, 1938 NPG, the Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection © 2018 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York PRESS
Andy Warhol Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol, 1966 NPG, the Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection; © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Gertrude Kasebier by Gertrude Käsebier, 1905 NPG, gift of Larry J. West
Don Bachardy by Don Bachardy, 1976 NPG, gift of Don Bachardy and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California © Don Bachardy
MW His self, Nov 30, 1972 by Martin Wong, 1972 NPG, the Abraham and Virginia Weiss Charitable Trust, Amy and Marc Meadows, in honor of Wendy Wick Reaves © 2016, The Estate of Martin Wong and P.P.O.W
Diego Rivera by Diego Rivera, 1930 NPG, The Abraham and Virginia Weiss Charitable Trust, Amy and Marc Meadows, in honor of Wendy Wick Reaves ©2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Super Buddahead by Roger Shimomura NPG, acquired through Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. © 2012, Roger Shimomura
Self Portrait with Grey Cat, 2003 by Fritz Scholder, 2003 NPG, © 2003 Estate of Fritz Scholder
Self-Portrait by Aaron Douglas, 1925 NPG, © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Elaine de Kooning Self-Portrait by Elaine de Kooning, 1968 NPg, the Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection © Elaine de Kooning Trust
Tsuguharu Foujita Self-Portrait by Tsuguharu Foujita, 1934 NPG, the Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Pele de Lappe Self-Portrait by Pele deLappe, 1938 NPG, the Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn Twentieth-Century American Self-Portrait Collection © Estate of Pele deLappe

Artists have been doing self-portraits for centuries, looking deeply, carefully depicting and declaring how they wanted to be seen in public.

So when it came time for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to assemble its final exhibition of its 50th anniversary year, it was time for a similar institutional self-reflection.

With more than 650 self-portraits in its collection to choose from, its new “Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today” reflects a wider, more diverse and inclusionary America than before.

There is the expected array of well-known male artists, from a silvered Andy Warhol, to a 21-year-old Edward Hopper in charcoal, a bemused Diego Rivera in a 1930 lithograph and a wall-sized 16-part Chuck Close in large format photographs from 1989. But roughly a third of the works are by women, from early photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals, from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where she was the only woman to receive photo credentials, to portraitist Alice Neel, presented in a surprising nude as an 80-year-old.

Chief curator Brendon Brame Fortune, who organized the show—and a separate, traveling version that goes out next year—calls the Neel “one of my favorite works in the collection.”

One of only two self-portraits she did in her long life, Neel began it at age 75 and completed it when she was 80, Fortune says. “She references her life as an artist,” she says, “but what she’s done, she’s taken the entire tradition of painting the female nude, which was usually done by a man, and she’s flipped the whole thing.”

Neel’s acceptance of her own aging body has “become her legacy,” Fortune says. And there are other works in the show where the artists may have aging on their mind, from a pensive Elaine de Kooning charcoal from 1968, six days after turning 50. “This was a time in her life when she was in transition,” Fortune says. Though her hair was short at the time, she rendered herself with longer hair she had decades earlier. “I think she’s rejecting a present face . . . in the past that she sees.”

A 1965 self-portrait crayon drawing by Paul Cadmus at age 60, too, may be looking back wistfully at better days. “It’s a very subtle, very sensitive drawing,” Fortune says.

Aaron Douglas purposely used red Conté crayon on paper for his 1925 self-portrait because it had also been used by past masters such as Delacroix. Best known for murals at Fisk University, the Harlem Renaissance artist is “showing us his mastery of the artists of the past as he moves forward into the future. He’s asserting himself in the midst of Jim Crow America.”

Other African-American artists in the exhibition include James Amos Porter, who literally wrote the first book on it, Modern Negro Art, in 1943. His oil on canvas is one of the rare artist self-portraits in the exhibition to show him among the tools of his trade, paints, with Howard University, where he taught for more than 40 years, prominent behind him.

The splashier oil portrait of Thomas Hart Benton from 1924 may have more wishful thinking behind it, Fortune says. It was first thought to be a marriage portrait with his wife Rita Piacenza, whom he wed in 1922. Subsequently, scholars studying Benton’s work and his affinities for Hollywood, found that it was probably done two years later. “Partly because Rita’s bathing costume is very stylish and up to the minute,” Fortune says, “but also because Benton, who loved the movies, is posing in a way that may reference Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s role in “The Thief of Baghdad, which came out in 1924.”

Not everything in “Eye to I” is two dimensional. Grant Wood represents himself in a three-inch bronze of his smiling face from early in his career, circa 1925. “He made a number of these in plaster and gave them to friends,” Fortune says. “This was cast later.”

Much larger is Patricia Cronin’s seven-foot bronze, Memorial to a Marriage depicting the artist with her now-wife Deborah Kass, in the style of a 19th-century mortuary sculpture.

New media is reflected eventually, through a 1972 video from Joan Jonas, Left Side Right Side, and in the Internet Cache Portrait of Evan Roth, a Maryland-born artist now based in Germany, who reveals himself by reproducing everything he saw on the internet over a six week period this summer, printing it out on a ribboned, 60-foot long roll of vinyl.

“He calls it a nude self-portrait because it shows us everything he’s thinking and looking at on the web—personal, private and putting it out there for all of us to see,” Fortune says. “And remember, he’s in Berlin, so there’s a lot of images of Angela Merkel.”

A 2017 Instagram and internet video by the artist Amalia Soto, working under the name Molly Soda, shows her to take on a part of a young girl weeping over something she sees on her phone, and then doing a selfie of her sorrow. “She’s crying, but then she’s looking at the phone and she begins to preen a little bit, using the phone as a mirror, as artists who make self-portraits have done for centuries,” Fortune says, “but then she uses the phone as a camera to make a self-portrait of herself for later use.”

As National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet says, “We do indeed address the question of the selfie” —that most common explosion of self-portraiture in the culture. “We’re very excited that this is an incredibly diverse exhibition,” Sajet says, “not only in terms of media, but also in terms of gender, and in terms of racial and sociological identity. We have a huge range of people who have done their self -portrait.”

“We also hope that this sampling of how artists have approached the exploration of representations of self leads to a question for all of us,” she says, “on how we think about our own identity.”

Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today” continues through August 18, 2019 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.