The Strange Story Behind These New and Hilarious Old Master Emojis

Artist Molly Young replaces the smiley face with the subtlety of Dutch art.

If you have something to say, why not say it with Rembrandt?

In case you haven’t noticed, the latest iOS update allows iPhone users to enliven their texts with special effects and digital “stickers.” For lovers of fine art, there’s a new Old Master emoji “sticker pack” that allows you to communicate using heads culled from Dutch paintings,  dubbed Rejoinders.

The project is an initiative of Molly Young, an artist and writer, and Teddy Blanks, who runs the design studio CHIPS. The duo’s taste ranges to the odd end of the fine art continuum, which is probably just right for emoji purposes. Aside from Rembrandt’s fretful mug, the sources of Young’s gallery of cringing, squinting, and scowling art-historical emojis range to more obscure sources like Jan Baegert, Jan Mandijn, and Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen.

Rejoinders's gallery of Old Master emoji.

Rejoinders’s gallery of Old Master emoji.

The story behind the “sticker pack” is perhaps even more interesting than the thing itself, stemming from Young’s obsession with a particular, 16th-century Portrait of a Child in an Interior of the “Cremonese School,” which she spied at Sotheby’s Old Masters auction in London in 2014.

Young became so haunted by child’s face, she explained via email, that coworkers even made her a Haagen Dazs birthday cake decorated with the little guy’s face.

Molly Young's Old Master ice cream cake. Image courtesy Molly Young.

Molly Young’s Old Master ice cream cake. Image courtesy Molly Young.

Young elaborates:

A few years ago I got obsessed with a painting that failed to sell at a Sotheby’s auction. I wound up doing a backdoor deal with the seller and getting the painting, which now hangs in my bedroom. It’s a portrait of a child with a mysteriously receding hairline and a sly grin.

The omnipotence of this painting in my life—BOY does it dominate a room—led my partner and I to hunt for other curiously expressive characters in paintings. We liked the range in Old Masters—especially Flemish and Cremonese pictures. Usually inferior Old Masters. We amassed a digital collection of facial expressions. There were so many! Mirth, contempt, belligerence, discomfiture, elation…

Then we realized that we could shrink down the faces, turn them into iOS stickers, and produce a whole vocabulary of emotive reactions. It’s emoji for adults. The thinking man’s emoji.

Molly Young with Portrait of a Child in an Interior, Leaning Against a Table, Holding a Portrait of a Man

Molly Young with Portrait of a Child in an Interior, Leaning Against a Table, Holding a Portrait of a Man

This is not the artist’s only foray into the “sticker” world. She also created a set called “Flair,” that allows you to communicate via button-like images with creative slogans. She is also behind the recent Periodic Table of NYC Trash, which contains all-too-familiar entries such as “Bundled Cardboard,” “Deli Coffee,” and “Baby Sock.”


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