According to Frances Borzello in Seeing Ourselves, the earliest representations of women painting themselves are medieval in origin. Boccaccio (1313-1375) in Concerning famous women, mentions an artist named Marcia who sat ‘with the aid of a mirror, preserving the colours and features and expression of the face so completely that none of her contemporaries doubted that it was just like her.’
This little painting dates from 1404, some 30 years before Jan van Eyck painted what is considered as the first self-portrait, with his iconic sidewards glance and delightful red turban. (More about him in a later post)
The thing that strikes me about Marcia is that she portrays herself in the act of painting herself. The work engages us on several levels – we see the process of painting a self-portrait; Marcia bent conscientiously over her work, tools and paints laid out carefully on the adjacent bench. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking she is applying her make-up, the only difference is she holds the brush to the canvas rather than to her own face. We see her deep in contemplation of self as she peers intently into the mirror. It’s really three self-portraits in one – self as subject and then as object and also of self as translator or narrator of one’s own image. Powerful on all levels and a significant work for a woman in the 15th century.
It’s almost post-modern in its approach and a consummate example of how we invented ourselves as artists just as we painted our faces as women. It sets the scene for the stories we would tell and continue to tell about ourselves today, working within the spaces constructed for us and painting the stories that define us.
Self-portraiture over time has relied heavily on the mirror, right up until photography gave artists another reference point. By including the mirror in the painting, the mirror as a symbol becomes an intrinsic part of the dialogue that women have about ourselves.
It becomes our tool of reflection in several ways. The mirror allows us to inspect our physical selves; our faces – to primp and preen and monitor our composure and our public face. It provides a means for self-evaluation, analysis, an opportunity for private reproach and self-denigration. And it allows us to peer into our deeper darker selves in a way that our male counterparts never have.