Hi all, I’m Celia Yost, I’m a visual artist, and I’ve loved paintings and art museums and all that pretty much my entire life.
So anyways, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how women are visually represented in art (specifically painting, as that’s where my interest/background lies). If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you’re probably familiar with the parade of lounging nude ladies who are almost always glancing coyly away from the viewer. There will likely be a lot of other women on display too. There’s the pretty women in the park, the women dancing ballet, the women symbolizing virtues such as Liberty, or the women that are simply the subject in a painting that’s more about some technical thingy the artist is trying to do than painting an individual.
Most people making these paintings were, and I’m sure this is a surprise, men. However, there have been quite a few women over the years who’ve made names for themselves as artists, and I thought it would be interesting to see how they chose to represent themselves.
So! Self portraits by women artists throughout history! Before we get started, I want to make clear some of the limits this topic imposes. Since I’m talking about SELF portraits, that means pretty much by definition that we have to know the identities of both the artist and the subject. That gets tricky when you don’t have good written records, or said records didn’t stay with the painting. I’m starting in the mid 1500s because that’s the earliest example I could find, not necessarily the first that ever existed.*
“Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola” by Sofonisba Anguissola. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The first artist I’d like to talk about is Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625). To give some context to those dates, Sofonisba overlapped a bit with Michelangelo and reputedly received some art education from him when she was young. Her abilities seem to have been widely recognized from the start, most notably by her father who made sure she got an unusually thorough education. Eventually she was invited by the queen of Spain to be an official court painter, a post which included being the queen’s art tutor. So, overall, though I should point out that Sofonisba had a lot of support from her well-to-do family, I’d say she did pretty well for herself.
This portrait of her is from 1556, and in it Sofonisba has painted herself in what I like to think of the ‘Standard Bad-Ass Painter’ pose**. The basic statement is look at me, look at my awesome painting skills. Also, Sofonisba was trying to make sure that anyone who saw this painting knew what a pious, proper woman she was. Sober piety is one interpretation of the dark dress she’s wearing, and just in case anyone thought she was being too forward by putting herself on display Sofonisba would sign at least some of her work as “Sofonisba Anguissola, a virgin” (she did eventually marry, but not until relatively late in life).
But despite the hedging and the display of propriety, she is showing off. The devotional religious scene that she shows herself painting is typical of what she specialized in besides portraiture, and painting the scene so it looks correct for the angle it’s at in the painting would’ve been difficult. The dark dress nicely focuses attention on her hands—notoriously difficult to draw–and face. She isn’t looking coyly aside, but out at the viewer.
Sofonisba Anguissola thought she was pretty fantastic, and so do I.
*There are many times and places throughout art history where this sort of arts imply wasn’t being made very much by anybody for one reason or another (the artists themselves didn’t have the social standing to warrant a portrait/most of the art was religious in nature/most of the art didn’t involve recognizable people at all/etc). Also, even if conditions are ideal, not all artists want to make self-portraits because it’s just not their thing.
**Bonus, if you’re painting yourself in a mirror (Sofonisba kindly cut the speculation by leaving records stating that she painted this way), it’s significantly more convenient to have yourself be painting in the composition than doing anything else. Another thing about her black dress, is that while it’s still probably a pretty fancy outfit, it at least looks like something you could reasonably keep out of the paint.
-Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print. p714-16
http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/artist/sofonisba.htm (this article has some really interesting bits about gender and while I don’t necessarily agree with the whole thing you should go read it)