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Dutch Self-Portraits - Selfies of the Golden Age

From 8 October 2015 through 3 January 2016, the Mauritshuis exhibits twenty-seven outstanding examples of self-portraits from the peak of Dutch painting, in the exhibition Dutch Self-Portraits - Selfies of the Golden Age.

Voskuyl, Self-Portrait
Huygh Pietersz Voskuyl, Self-Portrait, ca. 1638.

The Dutch self-portrait

Many seventeenth-century Dutch artists have painted self-portraits, more so than in any other time or place. Some of these painters were specialists in the area, others created only one extant self-portrait. The variation amongst the works was considerable, but palette and paintbrushes were the most common attributes.

The large number of self-portraits created can be linked to the increase in painting production at the time. The competition was fierce, so painters needed to generate a prominent position in the market. The self-portrait lent the artist and his or her work a 'face'. The self-portrait was, therefore, not only a portrait of the painter, but often also a statement about his or her work.

Selfies of the Golden Age

Today self-portraits are extremely popular, partly thanks to the modern 'selfie'. Everyone can make a self-portrait using a smartphone, and then quickly share it with friends and acquaintances. This means that millions of people actually often think about how they want to present themselves to others.

Seventeenth-century self-portraits, might seem to encourage comparisons with the modern selfie, but there are many differences. Whereas the modern selfie can be taken easily, sometimes even carelessly, painting a self-portrait in the seventeenth century required a long training and considerable craftsmanship.

Artists expended considerable effort on their self-portraits. They are portraits painted with considerable skill, in which the painter showed how he or she wanted to appear to the world. A self-portrait could also serve as an example of the painter's specific abilities, not only his or her talent in achieving an accurate resemblance, but also of the skills required, for instance in the field of representing fabric. The self-portrait was, as it were, a business card for the painter.


The exhibition offers a concise overview of the genre of self-portraits. Twenty-seven paintings present the different types of self-portraits: portraits such as the 'gentleman', self-portraits with others (family members), self-portraits with a still life, self-portraits in a role (such as hunter) and self-portraits with trade attributes (palette, brushes, easel).

Amongst the highlights is the Self-portrait by Judith Leyster, one of the most successful female artists of the Golden Age, which is on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Leyster turns towards us, laughing. She is working on the painting of a happy violin player which derives from one of her own works.

An especially remarkable piece is the Self-portrait by Huygh Voskuyl, which is also the representative image for the exhibition. He looks at us over his shoulder. His hairs stick out from under his hat, his jaws are unshaven and his ruddy moustache is wildly outgrown. His frowning look gives the self-portrait the character of a snapshot, as if he is reacting to our unexpected presence. 

Carel Fabritius - one of Rembrandt's most talented students - was about twenty-five years old when he painted the self-portrait in the exhibition. His virtuoso technique is reminiscent of his master: the representation is almost sculpted into the painting in some places.

Judith Leyster, Zelfportret
Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, c. 1630/32
National Gallery of Washington

Mirror image

In the exhibition, visitors not only come face to face with legendary painters such as Jan Steen, Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius and Gerrit Dou, but they also meet themselves. The design, which incorporates mirrors on low walls, throws a spotlight on the visitors themselves. This means that not only the artists, but the visitors are made aware of their image to the outside world. A film in the exhibition space uses the modern concept of the 'selfie' to demonstrate the choices that the artists in the seventeenth century faced when making a self-portrait.


Of course, a visit to the exhibition Dutch Self-Portraits - Selfies of the Golden Age isn't complete without an own selfie. During the exhibition, it is therefore possible to photograph without flash - just as in the rest of the Mauritshuis. Photography using tripods or selfie sticks is not allowed.


A richly illustrated catalogue will be produced for the exhibition, in Dutch and English, published by Waanders Uitgeverij. The catalogue was written by content curator Ariane van Suchtelen and will be available in particular at the Mauritshuis museum shop.

Dutch Self-Portraits of the Golden Age (ISBN 978 94 6262 056 8) 
Hollandse zelfportretten uit de Gouden Eeuw (ISBN 978 94 6262 055 1)
Publisher:  Uitgeverij Waanders
Price €22,50 

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