What do Facebook and Rembrandt have in common? Everything

Friending the Virgin: some thoughts on the pre-history of Facebook

From SAGE Open

Facebook and artists like Rembrandt have much in common. The main commonality lies in the act of portraiture, which consists of more than just the realistic depiction of a subject, but also a number of rhetorical decisions closely intertwined with evolving ideas of identity and society. This article points out the complex negotiations that artists had to make when painting some of their most famous works, similar to the choices people make today with respect to selecting images, interests, and descriptions to represent themselves on Facebook. “In traditional portraiture pose, gesture, prop, costume, glance provided the raw materials out of which a specific presence was evoked,” wrote the author. Similarly, today’s Facebook –or any social networking site— profile allows contemporaries to share their collective portraiture. This may seem easier than sitting for a portrait, but that today’s tools of text, pictures and video almost allow for more potential for failure than the paintbrushes of masters. Both Rembrandt and Facebook strive for mastery over the challenges of representation.


This article looks at how previous practice of portraiture prepared the way for self-presentation on social networking sites. A portrait is not simply an exercise in the skillful or “realistic” depiction of a subject. Rather, it is a rhetorical exercise in visual description and persuasion and a site of intricate communicative processes. A long evolution of visual culture, intimately intertwined with evolving notions of identity and society, was necessary to create the conditions for the particular forms of self-representation we encounter on Facebook. Many of these premodern strategies prefigure ones we encounter on Facebook. By delineating the ways current practices reflect earlier ones, we can set a baseline from which we can isolate the precise novelty of current practice in social networking sites.

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Article details
Friedlander, L. (2011). Friending the Virgin: Some Thoughts on the Prehistory of Facebook SAGE Open DOI: 10.1177/2158244011415423

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