Ah, millennials. One article will say that we’re working too hard, the next will explain how under-prepared we are for the real world. We’ve reduced our cooking habits to minute-long videos and our communication with each other and the outside world has been filtered down through various streams of social media. We’ve opted to meet new people through apps on our phones and take gratuitous photos of our everyday lives so we can impress the new online crowds we’ve built for ourselves. We’re too this and we’re too that, and we’re not nearly enough of this or that, and most importantly: so. many. selfies. taken along the way.
A recurring theme in these sometime scathing op-eds about the millennial generation is that we seem to be the first to be so openly self-indulgent and concerned with appearances. I mean, the reason for these habits is right in our palms – at our fingertips! We have instant access to cameras and beautifying filters and social media platforms that we can disseminate these leagues of unnecessary photos on that will give us the narcissistic boost we all so desperately crave, and we’ll be damned if we can put the offending devices behind this madness down for more than a single second.
I sincerely doubt that one day my selfies will hang in the grand galleries of The Met, but should they find themselves there, know that their very existence stems from that of the coiffed flowing locks, bright eyes, and rosy cheeks of the Old Masters of the Dutch Golden Age. A variety of factors played into this era’s art boom: the rise of trade with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company and growth of the merchants and middle class, the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and Calvinist Iconoclasm on the role of images in culture, the separation from the Spanish Habsburgs and foundation of the Dutch Republic and its effect on the political climate, and the intellectual developments from the Renaissance that were continuing to flourish. The art market quickly adapted to its increase in audience by developing new non-sacred subject matter for paintings, which were now being increasingly purchased by the middle class for their homes thanks to the increase in trade. Many of these themes are as popular now as they were then, and the visual culture crafted by that era is almost identical to the one we still have now.
Let’s start with selfies; we’re all guilty of taking them, but perhaps this guilt is misplaced. The guilt itself stems from the idea that these self-portraits are overly self-indulgent and vain, but let’s get real here: nothing I can take with my iPhone camera in any quantity will rival the collections of self-portraits done by Rubens, Van Dyck, and especially Rembrandt. Rembrandt has dozens of self-portraits done in varying mediums and styles, much like how many of us have different angles, expressions, and filters in our selfies. Rubens flat out made a bunch of self-portraits, and Van Dyck used his self-portraits to comment on his social standing within the English court, which isn’t all that different from taking selfies at school or at an event.
Maybe your friend asked you to take a photo of them, and this also falls right in line with the age-old tradition of portraiture. Many painters would take portrait commissions as part of their regular work, and you’ve probably been asked by your friends to take cute photos of them on your nights out or days about town. A standard technique used by these painters was the elongation of the person’s face or figure to make them seem better proportioned, and it’s essentially the same thing as taking a photo from different angles (lower to make them seem taller, higher to make their face look slimmer by drawing attention to the eyes.)
Let’s expand the single-subject focus of selfies to group portraits instead, and take a look at the roots behind everyone’s favourite (possibly drunken) group shot. Hals, De Hooch, and Rembrandt painted many group shots, mainly for civil groups like citizen brigades and (quite famously) the night’s watch. Each person featured would pay for their own portrait and then it was put together by the artist into a singular group portrait, usually concentrated around a feast/banquet or just plain old showing off.
But what if the subjects are unknown or aren’t paying attention to you? Well, that’s where genre paintings by folks like Metsu, Maes, and Vermeer come in. Say you’ve just snapped a candid photo of someone; your significant other reading quietly, an anonymous person smiling on the metro, a particularly crazy fan at a sports event, or a friend mid-laugh across the table from you. These glimpses into moments of everyday life have a long-standing tradition that stems back to the Golden Age.
Capturing everyday life can also mean taking pictures of objects instead of people, and frankly we haven’t steered all that far from the Dutch tradition of still-life painting set up by painters like Peeters and van Hoogstraten. Your flat-lay photos and close-ups of coffee cups probably wouldn’t be as trendy if it weren’t for them; back in their day, imported citrus fruits on an imported rug-covered table were the equivalent of a 7$ chai latte on a hardwood coffee bar.
Sometimes you want to show off your home turf and have pride in your city and its goings-on, to which I will redirect you to the Dutch tradition of landscape painting. Goyens, Vermeer, and many many others took up this style during the Golden Age. Sunset snaps of the city are like Goyens’ dune paintings at a dime a dozen, waterfront views mimic Vermeer’s paintings of Delft, and the posted daily pics of skyscrapers are just like the paintings done of Amsterdam’s city centre as it grew into the Dutch Republic’s cultural capital.
Last but not least, my problematic fave: ye olde Tinder. Back in the 17th Century, instead of swiping right or left on photos, you spoke to a procuress and told her “yes” or “no” in response to pictures of her available ladies. Admittedly, most of the photos she had on hand were more scandalous than what you’ll usually browse through on Tinder, but hey – maybe we should take this as encouragement to better show off our assets to potential suitors. (or maybe don’t because that’s sorta sexual harassment and like, illegal and stuff.)
So go ahead and take all the selfies and pictures you want and edit them with every VSCO filter known to man; flex for the ‘Gram like the artists of the Dutch Golden Age flexed for the art market. There’s no shame in partaking in age old traditions of eras long past that don’t hurt anyone!