Reddit Has Become Weirdly Addicted to the ‘Droste Effect,’ With Paintings Within Paintings Within Paintings Going Viral

The meme offers a people-powered illustration of the "Droste Effect."

lillyofthenight with her painting. Photo: Reddit.

Sometimes the internet’s creativity knows no bounds. The latest proof comes via Reddit, where an unsuspecting amateur painter has provided the source material for a meme that serves as an object lesson on the pleasures of what art historians call the “Droste Effect.”

It all started when 55-year-old teacher Cindi Decker from Jacksonville, Florida returned home from an art course with a painting of a swan. Her son snapped a photo of her with the artwork and, as sons do these days, uploaded it to Reddit, where he goes by the name gaddafo. Days later, 45-year-old Swedish artist Kristoffer Zetterstrand decided to paint Decker holding her painting, identifying it as an example of a trend: mothers posing for pictures with their creations.

“I thought it was cute, and had the idea that I would paint one of these photos just for fun,” Zetterstrand told the BBC. After his painting too was posted to Reddit, the resulting mise-en-abyme image—a photo of him holding a painting of a photo of Decker holding her painting—earned 120,000 upvotes and hundreds of positive comments in five days.

Cindi Decker with her painting of a swan. Image via Reddit.

Cindi Decker with her painting of a swan. Image via Reddit.

That’s when the whole thing blossomed into meme status. Reddit user lillyofthenight saw Zetterstrand’s photo and decided to paint a portrait of the Swedish artist holding his painting of Decker holding her painting of the Swan. This new riff on the theme received 112,000 upvotes in just 72 hours. From there, things evolved pretty much as you would expect.

“It’s really weird,” Zetterstrand admitted to the BBC. “Last I counted there were over 40 paintings. I keep getting smaller and smaller.”

Kristoffer Zetterstrand with his painting of “Somebody’s Mom.” Photo: Reddit.

As more and more artists continued to take part in the phenomenon, some Reddit users started creating helpful flow charts to trace the origin. Redditor nublargh took to GitHub to create one that has more than 40 entries, tracking the craze as it has unfolded.

Screenshot of Reddit user nubleh's flowchart tracking the evolution of the swan painting meme.

Screenshot of Reddit user nubleh’s flowchart tracking the evolution of the swan painting meme.

And the friendly competition continues. User inthesandtrap commented, “Eventually, there will be one painting to rule them all.”

The original 1904 Droste cacao tin, designed by Jan Misset. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The original 1904 Droste cacao tin, designed by Jan Misset. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, the fascination with this visual “painting-within-a-painting” phenomenon isn’t new. Art historians refer to this as the “Droste Effect,” after a Dutch brand of tinned powdered cocoa which featured an image of a nun on the tin, holding a tin with an image of herself on it. That design was created by artist Jan Misset in 1904, but the technique can be traced to medieval times in paintings such as Giotto’s Stefaneschi Triptych, an altarpiece painted from 1320, which features within its image a picture of a cardinal holding the altarpiece itself.

Left: Giotto, <em>The Stefaneschi Triptych: St Peter Enthroned</em> (ca. 1330); Right: Detail of the panel. Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Left: Giotto, The Stefaneschi Triptych: St Peter Enthroned (ca. 1330); Right: Detail of the panel. Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


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