Eye to eye with Anna Bilinska

At about the same time as Therese Schwartze was peering back at Reynolds, Anna Bilinska was facing us – eye to eye. Anna Bilinska’s multi-layered painting is one of my favourites. When I’m feeling buoyant, I fancy myself chatting easily with this attractive woman – who appears to have sat down momentarily on the sitter’s chair, almost inadvertently catching her
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Peering back at Reynolds

There is a fabulous self-portrait by the Dutch artist Therese Schwartze (1852-1918) where she assumes the pose made famous by Joshua Reynolds some 140 years earlier. Reynolds painted his self-portrait early in his career and shows himself as a young artist, hand to brow shading his eyes and carefully surveying his subject – his own reflection in a mirror. It’s
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Understanding Artemesia’s Allegory

In 1611 Cesare Ripa published the highly influential text Iconologia, a kind of recipe book detailing the symbols artists could use in painting various themes. It was a bit of a ready-reckoner of emblems allowing artists to narrate complex stories and ideas using symbols which were easily recognised and understood by the viewer. The visual image played a different role
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Artemisia Gentileschi: the Nina Simone of the Renaissance

Much has been made in recent years of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Rather than talk about the story that accompanies her life – the rape by her art teacher Agostino Tassi which, having all the features of a good soap opera has the power to confine her within that story – I am going to attempt to throw light on
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Mary Cosway and her discontent

In 1787 a woman named Mary Cosway painted an amazing self-portrait. It was a portrait of her discontent. Today all that exists of the painting is an engraving by Valentine Green and as a result we must interpret her work partly through the hand of another. Even so, the message in Mary Cosway’s self-portrait is hard to miss. The composition
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Woman as painter: the 1700s and Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun

With the 1700s we begin to see some really significant women artists coming to the fore. In her book The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer uses an image on the cover by the artist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, one time sensation of the European world. Here she is happily working away wearing a big red sash in front of a large canvas,
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Woman as painter: an early archetype

Considering the restrictions put on women in terms of social choices, lack of financial independence, and the religious and moral baggage scattered at their feet, it surprises me that women painted themselves as artists quite as early as they did. This is an archetype one might expect to see as a run-up to suffrage, or post French Revolution perhaps, but
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More pioneers: the woman and the easel

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
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Pioneer and hero: Sofonisba Anguissola

From the mid 1500s we begin to see really notable self-portraits by women trickling through. My favourites are by Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian woman of minor nobility who, from her childhood was determined to paint. The problem for her and her peers was that there was no tradition or culture that gave women permission to be artists. They were working
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Mirror, mirror on the wall

  Images of women with mirrors are not rare – European art history in particular, is littered with images of women reflected in mirrors – we are painted post-coital, post bath, pre-bath, getting dressed, getting undressed, brushing our hair, doing our hair, playing with our hair and on and on. Many of these paintings are masterpieces in their own right
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