16th century ‘selfies’ – remarkable images show Matthaeus Schwarz from infancy to old age 1497-1560

16th century ‘selfies’ – remarkable images show Matthaeus Schwarz from infancy to old age 1497-1560

If you think that the narcissistic tendency of taking images of oneself changing over time began with the YouTube generation, think again.  Matthaeus Schwarz was doing it almost 500 years ago.

Schwarz, a style-obsessed German accountant, began commissioning watercolour paintings of himself in 1520.  He initially commissioned 36 images to retrospectively cover his appearance from his birth in 1497 (actually, the collection begins with his pregnant mother in 1496) up until the age of 23.  Over the next 40 years, he commissioned a further 101 paintings to record his image up to the age of 63.

Schwarz had the watercolours bound into a leather book, which he called his Klaidungsbüchlein, or ‘Book of Clothes’.  The result was the world’s first book of fashion, as well as a unique record of Matthaeus Schwarz’s life.

Schwarz was born in Augsburg, Germany in 1497.  His father, Ulrich Schwarz, was a wine merchant who married 3 times and produced a total of 38 children (if you are of European origin, it is likely that you will be his descendant).  Schwarz trained as an accountant in Italy and went on to work for the Fuggers, one of Renaissance Europe’s most powerful and wealthy banking families.  While Schwarz wasn’t filthy-rich himself, he had a good income and spent much of it on his wardrobe.

During Schwarz’s lifetime there were strict social rules on the wearing of clothes.  Sumptuary laws stipulated which styles and materials were appropriate to an individual’s rank in society, so Schwarz had to be careful not to ‘cross the line’.  However, he was clever in using styles and colours to signify social and political allegiances, and his investment in his appearance eventually paid off when he was ennobled in 1541.

Here are a selection of the images which plot the remarkable transformation of an unremarkable 16th century German accountant from infancy to old age:


Schwarz presumably felt that his appearance was no longer worthy of note after the age of 63, as there are no further images of him in his Klaidungsbüchlein after 1560.  After his death at the age of 77 in 1574, the book was handed down through the family and eventually sold.  Two copies were made but the original is now in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig.

Formal portrait of Matthaeus Schwarz in 1542
Formal portrait of Matthaeus Schwarz in 1542

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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015