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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.

Reynolds, Self-portrait. 1747-9 [via Wikimedia Commons]

Reynolds, Self-portrait. 1747-9 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a lovely work with a connotation of introspection and although the artist’s gaze doesn’t quite meet our eye, we can easily believe he is surveying the past or summoning the future. Perhaps the work is partly prophetic as Reynold’s poor eyesight forced him to abandon his career some years later. It’s a soft and quiet work, the artist engaged in a private business of looking; he’s concentrating, maulstick and palette in hand preparing himself to paint.

Now Reynolds (1723-1792) was a big wig in the art world – he was a member of the Royal Society of Arts and along with Gainsborough (mentioned in a previous post in regard to the ungainly portrait of Anne Ford), established the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. He was the first president of that organisation and wrote and lectured widely. He was also the Prinicpal Painter in Ordinary to the King and although it is said that he didn’t think much of the job, it sits pretty impressively on his resume.

Schwartze, Self-portrait, 1888. via Wikimedia Commons

Schwartze, Self-portrait, 1888. via Wikimedia Commons

The very fact that Schwartze was able to claim and adapt Reynold’s pose for herself says a lot about how things were changing for women. Schwartze is not a household name as far as artists go however, at the age of thirty-six she had been invited to submit work to the Uffizi. That’s got to tell us something. The seriousness with which she assumes the pose gives us clear indication that she is no amateur.

I really like that she paints herself wearing her glasses as it gives the work a kind of credibility that many of the early self-portraits of women lack. But here, just as we saw with Artemisia Gentileschi we are presented with a woman who is really convincing as a painter; she has unbuttoned her sleeve in readiness and pushed it part way up her arm to avoid the paint. The palette she holds is enormous as is the 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 society’s permission to paint.

We are also witnessing here the piggy-back game of reinterpretation in painting – it began for women painters with Catarina van Hemessen originally defining herself as an artist using the easel and palette as props, a schema assimilated by male artists for their own purposes. In turn Therese Schwartz extends the narrative and once again forces her inclusion into the identity of artist. It’s a game of push and shove, a struggle for territory and one won by part stealth and part bravado.



One Response to “Peering back at Reynolds”

  1. […] about the same time as Therese Schwartze was peering back at Reynolds, Anna Bilinska was facing us – eye to […]

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