Self portrait of Kcenia Nechitailo, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,
comments 4

St Petersburg – 200 years of Russian Chick Selfies

Women, so I’ve read (and seem to observe), are significantly more likely to take ‘selfies’ than men. It doesn’t seem to matter where I go now, but there are crowds, struggling under the weight of a selfie-stick, with some digital apparatus on the end of it.

In a previous incarnation, I was a photographer. This was back in the days when, after the fun part, I disappeared into a dark room, banged the ends of ten rolls of film, threaded each onto a reel, whacked them into two tanks with chemicals, and then started shaking them – five rolls in each hand.  From strips of negatives proof-sheets were printed, then some frames enlarged onto prints. If there were dust spots, sorry, I mean, when there were dust spots, I mixed up a little white paint and Indian ink to get the right shade of grey to paint them out. God – where did all that go?!

Digital has somehow profaned the whole thing. Not just photography itself, but it’s made it so much easier to turn the camera around. Framing and focusing was damned hard  on yourself. Selfies are just too-easy. But there was the time, and still is the medium, when how you presented yourself to posterity, took time and effort.

In the  State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,  I was lucky enough to come across an entire exhibition of self-portraits. Not digital, or photographs at all, but mostly paintings. The exhibition was called (it’s over now)  ‘My own self’.

Right near the entry was one of the oldest self-portraits. A picture of Ekaterina Chikacheva, painted in 1812, the same year as her untimely death, at about 25.

Self portrait of Ekaterina Chikacheva , 1812, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Self portrait of Ekaterina Chikacheva, 1812, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

From there on, I wandered through several rooms, engrossed in dozens and dozens of self portraits. They probably covered every decade for more than two centuries. There were more than 200 self portraits in the exhibition – possibly one of the largest collection of painted selfies on the planet. Men, men, men – where were the women? I had to look hard – maybe six artists?  The male:female ratio must have been at least 40:1.

The exhibition of Self-Portraits 'My Own Self' at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

The exhibition of Self-Portraits ‘My Own Self’ at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

As time and the exhibition progressed, there did seem to be a few more women. And perhaps to make up for the few female artists, there were several works shown from some of them. For ex example several self-portraits of the wonderful Zinaida Serebriakova. The first in the series spanning 46 years was a pencil sketch,  drawn in about 1900, when she was just 17. The next was a painting from 1911.

Self portrait of , State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Self portrait of Zinaida Serebriakova, c. 1900, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,


Self portrait of , State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Self portrait of Zinaida Serebriakova, 1911, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Self portrait of Zinaida Serebriakova, 1946, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Self portrait of Zinaida Serebriakova, 1946, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

There were also a couple from Valentina Markova, and one of my favourites – a selfie of the contemporary painter Kcenia Nechitailo, which I’ve used as the featured image.

Self portrait of Valentina Markova, c. 1930, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Self portrait of Valentina Markova, c. 1930, State Russian Museum in St Petersburg,

Perhaps there is a simple explanation for the very few women in a huge exhibition of self-portraits – maybe women just didn’t have the same opportunities to paint as men. Overall, I guess not. But, I’m not sure that’s the answer. One of the few options for women of leisure, was painting. So did they tend not to paint themselves in the past? Or is the imbalance something to do with curation?

In any case – what a change! Digital media is one of the great equalisers. The massive difference in gender balance with digital selfies seems to show us a kind of underlying reality –  what people like to do, when they can….




  1. Danielle

    Could it have something to do with changes in the role of vanity in gender identity? Who are selfies ultimately taken for? And who were these paintings painted for? I’m sure there’s a lot of interesting material there for an art theory / gender expert to unpack for us…

    • Why isn’t there a reply to this?! Didn’t I write something via email? I think there is heaps of data in a collection like this for all sorts of experts to chew over. Vanity in gender identity? That’s an interesting one – I guess men have gone through fashion phases where what’s probably an innate vanity is encouraged. Think Renaissance/Carnaby Street. As for who the selfies/paintings are ultimately taken for – that’s surely the key issue. Graeme made several good points above, though I still wonder if the present day ‘selfies’ are that fundamentally different from a self-portrait painting. Is it not just that the constraints of time/money/skill have been removed? There are probably whole years of my life that were not recorded in a photo at all, let alone a selfie. ‘Back then’, photos cost money. Then they got cheap and quickly came the gadgets to make it easier for you to be the subject. I certainly remember the Japanese thing that Graeme mentions – and always wondered what friends and family thought of the photo albums back home. I guess the only difference now is they are not being taken by passing locals. It’s a related topic, but has tourism become the art of getting someone to a cool spot where they can get the required selfie?

  2. Graeme

    I doubt that self-portraits then are in any way comparable to selfies now. I of course have no idea why painters (or photographers) did self-portraits but I very much doubt it had anything to do with the current culture of ME, Here, Now. Even back in the ’80’s, I was amused by the regularity with which I’d be asked by a Japanese man to take a photo of him and his wife beside a sign, proof of being somewhere, if there wasn’t a friendly ranger type to ask he (and it was always he) would settle for a photo of just the wife, then the camera would go away (never mind the wildlife, scenery etc that the sign was about).
    A question for a sociology major, were/are men more concerned with immortality than women? Or perhaps it is just that women received less recognition and therefore their works were more often discarded or painted over. You know that distinction between art and craft, Men were painters by vocation = artist, women were painters to fill the time = hobbyist. Women therefore had to reach a higher standard to be deemed worthy of collection/curation. Unfortunately that attitude persists in business and politics.

Leave a Reply to Graeme Cancel reply