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Women Artists by Themselves

By Catriona Miller

Women have always painted themselves for convenience, for practice, and for self-promotion. As a major exhibition of women artists opens in London, we look at female self-portraits and what they say about the painters who made them.

It might come as a surprise, but the first self-portrait by an artist in the act of painting is by a woman. Caterina van Hemessen was a successful Flemish painter of portraits and religious subjects, she was a member of the Guild of St Luke, patronised by royalty and even mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. Her self-portrait is from the start of her career and the intention could not be clearer, the painting is inscribed: 'I Caterina van Hemessen have painted myself/1548/Aged 20'. She is establishing herself as an artist who is also a woman, sat by her easel where she has already started work on sketching in a female head, possibly even a self-portrait, with brushes, palette and maulstick in hand.

Van Hemessen's work is remarkably similar to that of Sofonisba Anguissola painted in 1556. An Italian painter, Anguissola also achieved international fame and spent many years working at the Spanish court. Again the artist shows herself at work, this time in front of a Madonna and Child. Anguissola catches our gaze - there's a challenge in those cool eyes for anyone who dares to doubt her or her choice of profession. Both artists represent themselves in formal clothes - certainly not what they would have painted in - showing wealth, status and education. Anguissola choses a restrained, dark outfit which works alongside the image of the Virgin to suggest her virtue. It wasn't enough for women painters to be talented, they had to be respectable as well.

Male artists of the same period do not tend to show working self-portraits. Instead, they included themselves as active participants in the religious and mythological scenes they painted; or finely dressed, posed and at leisure as intellectual, noble individuals. Albrecht Durer even created a self-portrait which echoed images of Christ Blessing. At a time when artists were keen to stress their superiority to mere craftsmen, their classical and scientific learning, and their uniqueness as individuals, the daily grind of standing in front of a canvas was not something male painters wanted to record. Artemisia Gentileschi, by contrast, seems to relish that emphasis on effort. Her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting is utterly engrossed, oblivious of the viewer, awkwardly posed, with sleeves rolled up and strands of hair coming loose. We can't see what she's painting but it doesn't matter: it is the act itself which is important. Gentileschi is not just a painter here, she is Painting itself.

By the eighteenth century, women artists were more common, but they still faced significant obstacles in getting the training, access to exhibitions and acceptance by their male peers. Angelica Kauffman, as aware of her self-image as any influencer today, produced self-portraits throughout her career. The huge - over two metres wide - grandiose Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting shows her, fifty-three when the picture was produced, as young woman in fresh, luminous white, making the life-changing decision to abandon her promising career as a musician. The subject is inspired by Hercules' famous choice between Vice and Virtue: Kauffman is simultaneously representing herself as a delicate female and making a comparison with the strongest He-man hero of classical mythology. You had to be tough to survive as a woman in the art world, but clever and self-confident too.

Of course, not all self-portraits were so ideologically driven. Many women represented themselves as mothers: Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted herself hugging her daughter protectively. Others, including Adélaïde Labille-Guiard portrayed themselves as teachers, passing on knowledge to other would-be female artists. Elizabeth Siddal's small self-portrait seems a deliberately un-idealised counterbalance to her status as Pre-Raphaelite 'stunner' - this was a woman who wanted to be known as an artist not just a model. Frida Kahlo used highly symbolic self-portraits to explore the events and emotions her life, like chapters of a visual autobiography. Käthe Kollwitz's intense, angst-ridden prints and drawings, portray her personal emotional trauma but also that of the era she lived through and her empathy for the poor and dispossessed.

Marianne von Werefkin, 'Self Portrait', 1910, Lenbachaus, Munich (Wikimedia Commons)

Louise Jopling described the convenience of painting herself in her bedroom mirror because 'my model cost me nothing and never got bored', and ultimately self portraits provide all artists with an easily accessible means of practising and experimenting. Marianne von Werefkin's fierce stare rendered in expressionistic brushstrokes and vibrant colours is a 'don't mess with me' statement of artistic intent. As a pivotal figure in the German Blue Rider group Werefkin's portrait exemplifies their optimistic aesthetic of rich colour and natural motifs. She references traditional representations of women, as well as Matisse's famous Fauve work Woman with a Hat but there is no idealisation in the heavy jawline and shadows under the eyes. Instead, there's a sense of character, dynamic energy and determination with the non-naturalistic colours suggesting an inner fire.

Women artists might no longer have to prove a point with their self portraits, but the genre remains a vital way of expressing emotions, ambitions and experiences, of positioning oneself within the art world and society as a whole, and of making aesthetic and ideological statements. A simple 'selfie' can say a lot.

'Angelica Kauffman' is at the Royal Academy until 30 June 2024

'Expressionists: Kandinsky, Munter and the Blue Rider' is at Tate Modern until 20 October 2024

'Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920' is at Tate Britain 16 May-13 October 2024


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife 

Instagram: cmillerartlife


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