Home » More pioneers: the woman and the easel

More pioneers: the woman and the easel

Catarina van Hemessen, Self portrait, 1548

Sofonisba Anguissola was not alone in the early 1500s in creating the archetypes we would emulate. Catarina van Hemessen, a Flemish artist is particularly important because she is said to be the first artist of either sex who painted herself at an easel. In 1548 she paints herself seated in front of her easel, brushes and palette in hand.

Everything about this work is demure – her posture,┬áher dress, the little black velvet ribbon at the waist, her carefully covered hair all convey absolute propriety. The space within the painting is as closed and quiet as the look on her face. She appears almost shy, turning as if roused by some distant thought and in doing so we catch a glimpse of her passivity. She looks across us, past us and on into the distance. Nothing is disclosed that is not proper; no raw emotion, no bravado or wild fantasy here. Instead van Hemessen exerts complete and perfect control over how she is to be seen. And necessarily so – a female artist could not afford to be considered even vaguely showy or ostentatious and certainly not an original thinker!

Fratellini, Self-portrait. 1720

Fratellini, Self-portrait. 1720

To survive as a female artist meant flying under the radar, keeping one’s head down; holding one’s breath in order to covertly squeeze yourself into a space entirely reserved for men – that of the realm of artist.

Incidentally, Catarina was taught to paint by her father and this is something we see quite often, so perhaps we should spare a moment to marvel at those kind old Dads – what customs did they flout in treating their daughters with this strange permissiveness? Were they the objects of derision at the local pub, warding off harsh rebuffs for allowing their daughters to getting down and dirty with paint?

What begins with this rather tentative little painting by Catarina van Hemessen was emulated in 1556 by Sofonisba Anguissola and then again by Lavinia Fontana in 1579. Here is another example of woman at the easel by Giovanna Fratella. She is painting a portrait of her son – how very genteel of her!

Within a hundred years the composition and theme of a woman at her easel had firmly become part of the female visual rhetoric and continues to the modern day in a number of interesting and varied manifestations which I’ll look at the coming posts.


2 Responses to “More pioneers: the woman and the easel”

  1. […] bunch of brushes in her hand. Gone are the demure little crayons and tiny palettes that we see our earlier artists using. Gone is the necessity of maintaining proper lady-like conventions in order to gain […]

  2. […] the motifs of easel and palette at her side. This archetype, forged nearly 400 years earlier by Catarina van Hemessen repeats itself in history as women continually push to be identified as artists in the eyes of a […]

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