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There were no selfies during the Italian Renaissance.

What artists did have back in the 15th and 16th centuries, though, was maybe the next best thing: painted portraits.

While this might sound like a desperate plea from an educator to try to get students interested in classic art—”William Shakespeare was a hip-hop artist!”—it really is true that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has more in common with your Instagram profile photo than you might think.

“I always try to teach students that a portrait is not just a picture of a person, it’s a way for people to present themselves to the world and they’re often very contrived,” said University of Wisconsin Oshkosh art history professor Susan Maxwell. “You can’t just accept what you see as fact. People are presenting themselves in a certain way.”

So much like the way a selfie-taker might aim for perfect lighting, a curated backdrop and juuust the right angle, some of the most well-known painters to ever live were sometimes working with the same intentions.

Students in two of Maxwell’s classes in the spring semester had the opportunity to explore these ideas with a project well-suited for the coronavirus era. In both Art 210: Survey of Art II and Art 313: Italian Renaissance Art History, an assignment before the semester closed involved the re-creating of famous works via the selfie.

The assignment was on the syllabus from the get-go and only became more fitting as the semester progressed and the coronavirus crisis sent students away from campus. As people began staying home, museums used social media to encourage followers to re-create masterpieces with whatever household objects they could find. The J. Paul Getty Museum in California was among the big-name proponents of the trend.

A portrait of Federigo da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca and a re-creation by Stephen Shafer.

“It’s funny because I’ve done it before,” Maxwell said. “It’s something that’s not worth a lot, just something fun for the students to do at the end of the semester. But this semester it became a huge phenomenon.”

The assignment is a way for the students to think about all the elements that went into the portraits, like perspective, lighting, facial expressions and clothing. In past semesters, the students would write up a short explanation of why those a certain piece. Maxwell skipped that part this year.

Sophia Nunn, a senior Spanish education major from Appleton, was in the Italian Renaissance class and is considering an art history minor. She was excited about the selfie project and, after hunting for something realistic to re-create, she chose a Raphael self-portrait.

“I figured I could style my hair this way and find the matching close easily in my closets,” she said. “I even knit the hat so it would match the cap better.”

Sophomore environmental studies major Stephen Schafer, of Waukesha, chose Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino (Federigo da Montefeltro) in part because its backdrop reminded him of the view from his parents’ home. Also part of the Italian Renaissance class, Schafer said he thought the assignment was a creative and more personal way of interacting with the subject matter.

“I enjoyed seeing what others came up with,” he said. “It was a relaxed and fun assignment in the middle of finals and everything that has been happening with the coronavirus, so it took away a lot of stress.”

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