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Before the Selfie

A few words on women’s self-portraits

By Margie MacKinnon

From Restoration Conversations Magazine, Issue 3, Spring/Summer 2023

Rolinda Sharples, 1820. Self-portrait with her Mother Ellen Sharples

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

“I have been paying a lot of attention to how women artists chose to depict themselves. Every decision is very deliberate in self-portraits. In the age of the ‘selfie’, where any one of us can just pick up a phone and take a ‘self-portrait’, I think it becomes even more pivotal to understand the meaning of those portraits and those choices,” says Flavia Frigeri, who has spent the past two and a half years thinking about how women are represented at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

A self-portrait is never just a likeness of the artist, but a female self-portrait is particularly loaded. The artist often displays the tools of her trade – a palette, a paintbrush and easel – or includes objects, such as flowers or elaborate fabrics, to show off her particular skills as a painter. She may even include her children, identifying as a mother. She might present an ‘air-brushed’ version of herself, either out of vanity or for marketing purposes. But, most importantly, she creates a calling card that says, ‘I am a woman and I am an artist’.

The self-portraits of women artists sometimes depict their family members – usually fathers or uncles, also in the painting trade, as a symbol of standing. More rarely, they paint their children or mothers beside them. Rolinda Sharples’ 1820 self-portrait with mother Ellen, at the Bristol City Art Museum and Gallery, is one delightful example. Painting one’s master was equally common in early self-portraiture, as a way of claiming one’s spot as ‘true heir’ to the craft. Such is the case of Anna Waser’s 1691 painting at the Kunsthaus in Zürich once known by its original title: Self-portrait in the artist’s twelfth year, painting the portrait of her teacher Johannes Sulzer. At Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum, Mimmi Zetterström’s self-portrait from 1876 is equally worthy of note. She paints herself working alone, yet, in this colourful scene, her atelier or workroom, is a character-of-sorts – and the walls speak volumes about her prolific nature as a painter.

Anna Waser, 1691, Self-portrait at the Age of 12. Kunsthaus, Zürich

Many of the artists featured in this issue of Restoration Conversations have created one or more self-portraits that provide us clues to their personalities. Alice Neel completed her first self-portrait at the age of 80. “All my life I’ve wanted to paint a self-portrait,” Neel declared. “But I waited until now, when people would accuse me of insanity rather than vanity.” She painted herself nude, and presents herself as both artist, holding a paintbrush, and subject, seated in the striped blue and white chair that featured in many of her portraits. Not unlike her subjects, she looks slightly awkward, with her feet splayed and her torso leaning forward rather than relaxing into the chair. But the tilt of her chin seems to say, ‘this is who I am – an artist who tells it like it is.’

Rosalba Carriera was another artist who did not shy away from painting herself in old(er) age. Indeed, as Jennifer Higgie points out in The Mirror and the Palette, in Carriera’s 1730-31 pastel Self-Portrait as ‘Winter’, she “depicted herself not only as someone who has aged, but as the embodiment of the passing of the seasons, as if she were not only a woman but a landscape as well.” She is not troubled with vanity. Her grey hair matches the fur draped around her neck; no rouge brightens up her cheeks or enhances her slightly pursed lips [Editor’s note: this painting is featured at Carriera’s Dresden: show, p. X] We acquire more insight into her inner life with her 1715 Self-portrait holding a portrait of her sister. Here, again, she presents an unvarnished ‘warts and all’ version of herself, but the fact that she includes her sister in the picture demonstrates the importance of this relationship and the depth of feeling between them. And this is all the more so when we consider that this was the painting Carriera contributed to the Medici collection of self-portraits at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Initiated by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici in the seventeenth century, this extensive collection comprises some 1,800 paintings. Until it was closed for renovations in 2016, 600 self-portraits were exhibited in the Vasari Corridor, which connects the Palazzo Vecchio, via the Uffizi and the Ponte Vecchio, to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno River. Because the Medici Grand Dukes were particularly keen to collect female self-portraits, this prestigious series boasts the highest concentration of works by women artists available for public viewing in the world. For anyone fortunate enough to have taken it, the ‘Vasari Corridor tour’ was revelatory – who knew there were so many recognised female painters going back to the 1500’s?

When the Vasari Corridor reopens, at a date yet to be disclosed, it will no longer house the self-portrait collection. Perhaps the women’s self-portraits will be dispersed throughout the collection across different periods. Or perhaps they will be part of a rotating group of self-portraits in a designated gallery. But it seems certain that the impact of concentrating so many works of and by women in a unique part of the museum will be lost.

One self-portrait that is missing from the Medici collection is that of Artemisia Gentileschi. This is surprising given that she lived and worked in Florence for seven years and was patronised by Cosimo II de’ Medici. It sometimes appears as if every female protagonist in her paintings, whether saint, Biblical heroine or allegorical figure, is mooted as a possible ‘self-portrait’. This applies to her ‘Allegory of Inclination’ currently the subject of a restoration at Casa Buonarroti. Commissioned by Michelangelo the Younger, and planned by him in every detail, the commission was “particularly audacious,” in the words of art historian Sheila Barker, “because it called for female nudity in a canvas meant for semi-public display … Had it been painted by a man, the female nudity would have been perceived as an allegorical attribute; however, because it was painted by an attractive young woman, the nude body could be taken as a literal reference to the artist’s own body.”

The restoration of Artemisia Gentileschi's Allegory of Inclination

ph. Olga Makarova, Calliope Arts, 2023

Barker goes on to explain that “rather than trying to forestall that inevitable association, Artemisia embraced it by giving her own idealised facial features to the nude figure. In reality, that nude figure, which is seen from below and, therefore, required difficult foreshortening, was necessarily made with the assistance of a female model …” Artemisia would have been pleased to be identified with the allegorical figure in the Inclination because she aspired to be seen as possessing the same attributes that were associated with Michelangelo. But it seems to beg the question, when is a self-portrait not a self-portrait?

Further reading: Barker, Sheila, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lund Humphries, London, 2022

Higgie, Jennifer, The Mirror and the Palette, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2021


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