Five groundbreaking self-portraits by women

Jennifer Higgie — author of a new book about women’s self-portraits to be published in March — on female artists whose depictions of themselves helped secure their place in history


Clockwise from top right, details of: Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1548; Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934; Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782; Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, circa 1630; Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-portrait on 6th Wedding Anniversary, 1906

The museums of the world are filled with paintings of women — by men. Ask around and you’ll find that most people struggle to name even one female artist from before the 20th century. But women have always made art, even though, over the centuries, every discouragement — from laws to religion and convention, the pressures of family and public disapproval — was, and in some places still is, put in their way.

Until the advent of modernity, women were expected to be wives, mothers or nuns, not artists or writers; they had no political agency and, unless their father was a painter, they had very little or no access to any kind of artistic training. 

(My focus here is the European tradition: in many indigenous cultures around the world, women’s creativity has been, and continues to be, central to individual and community self-expression.) 

I like to think of van Hemessen’s self-portrait as an act of defiance. ‘I am a woman painting,’ she seems to be saying, ‘and you can't stop me’

As it was in the financial, cultural and, we can assume, emotional interests of men to discourage women from pursuing a career, women were denied access to materials, to training and to the essential space and time every artist needs to nurture their talent.

Although women were active in the Middle Ages in crafts and illumination, we know very few of their names. In the Renaissance, women were forbidden to work on scaffolds, so they couldn’t be commissioned to make frescoes. 

Public art schools for women didn’t exist until the late 19th century; and even if they studied with a private tutor, in the main women were forbidden to work from life models and so were prevented from learning a central skill required by the professional artist. That is why so many female artists specialised in botanical and scientific studies, still life and self-portraiture: you might not be allowed to study a naked man, but your own body was another matter.

Over the past 500 years or so, there are countless stories of women struggling to be accepted as serious artists in the face of mass exclusion. Here are some of them.

Catharina van HemessenSelf-Portrait at the Easel, 1548


Catharina van Hemessen, Selbstbildnis an der Staffelei (Self-Portrait at the Easel), 1548. Oil on panel. 32 x 25cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Schenkung der Prof. J.J. Bachofen-Burckhardt-Stiftung 2015, Inv. 1361

Almost 500 years ago, in Antwerp, a young woman painted a self-portrait on an oak panel. Once done, she carefully inscribed some Latin words on its surface. Translated, they declare: ‘I Catharina van Hemessen have painted myself / 1548 / Here aged 20.’

To our 21st-century eyes, van Hemessen’s self-portrait could be dismissed as a charming, slightly clumsy curio painted by a woman at a time when few women were professional artists. However, this small picture is in fact a groundbreaking work of art: it is widely believed to be the earliest surviving self-portrait of an artist of any gender seated at an easel — and van Hemessen, who was to become a court artist in Spain, is the first female Flemish painter whose work we know of.

I like to think of it as an act of defiance. ‘I am a woman painting,’ the artist seems to be saying, ‘and you can’t stop me.’

Judith LeysterSelf-Portrait, circa 1630


Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609-1660), Self-Portrait, c. 1630. Oil on canvas, overall: 74.6 x 65.1 cm (29⅜ x 25⅝ in). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss. 1949.6.1. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

In 1633, the 24-year-old Judith Leyster became the only woman, alongside 30 men, to be accepted as a member of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke. This meant that she could sell her work, establish a workshop and take apprentices.

Although celebrated during her lifetime, she was largely forgotten after her death. Until 1893, her paintings were assumed to be by Frans Hals or her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer.

Her delight and pride in her craft are evident. Wielding 18 brushes, she is in the midst of painting her earlier work, Merry Company  (a canvas that realised £1,808,750 in December 2018 when it was sold at Christie’s in London). She is dressed in her finest clothes, a sartorial celebration of her craft and the wealth it has afforded her. She turns to greet us, smiling; it is as if she is speaking directly to us.

After centuries of silence, now we can hear her: this brilliant self-portrait, which for centuries was assumed to be by Hals, was only definitively attributed to Leyster when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. acquired it in 1949.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le BrunSelf-Portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782


Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782. Oil on canvas. 97.8 x 70.5 cm. Photo: © The National Gallery, London

Marie Antoinette’s favourite artist, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun is now best known for her scandalous self-portraits. In 18th-century France, according to the historian Colin Jones, a smile that showed the teeth suggested the subject was ‘plebeian, insane... or else in the grip of some particularly powerful passion’. It also might have had something to do with the fact that King Louis XIV had no teeth left by the time he was 40, and it wasn’t done to gloat.

Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat  is the young artist’s playful homage to Peter Paul Rubens’ 1622 painting of Susanna Lunden, Le Chapeau de Paille (‘The Straw Hat’). Despite the title, her hat is felt, not straw. In her painting, Vigée Le Brun — a brilliant self-promoter — has corrected Rubens’ mistake: a luxurious straw hat, decorated with flowers and a feather, adorns her golden curls. Holding a large palette and a fistful of brushes, she smiles out at us, allowing us a glimpse of her dazzling white teeth.

Paula Modersohn-BeckerSelf-Portrait on 6th Wedding Anniversary, 1906


Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-portrait on 6th Wedding Anniversary, 1906. Museen Böttcherstraße, Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen, Germany

In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s life-size self-portrait, she pictures herself cradling her pregnant belly, her head at a quizzical angle, with a soft expression of curiosity. Her features are raw, free of makeup or artifice; her brown eyes shine with intelligence and personality. Like Catharina van Hemessen’s self-portrait centuries earlier, the painting is inscribed. Translated, it reads: ‘I painted this at age 30 / on my 6th wedding day. P.B.’ — a return to her maiden name, Paula Becker.

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However, the pregnancy depicted here is symbolic. Modersohn-Becker had, in fact, just abandoned her husband in Worpswede, Germany, and moved to Paris in order to paint full-time.

At a time when women artists were often sidelined or ignored, what she was expecting was not a child but the fulfilment of her creativity. Today, the painting is admired not just for its modernity, but because it is considered to be the earliest known naked self-portrait by a woman.

Amrita Sher-GilSelf-Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934


Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934. Oil on canvas. Collection of Vivan and Navina Sundaram

One day in Paris, in 1934, a young Hungarian-Indian woman painted a self-portrait as a Tahitian, despite never having been to the South Pacific. Apart from a small cloth draped across her lower body, she is naked. Her body is outlined with the pale green shadow of a man. He is blocking the light.

In the last decades of the 19th century, Paul Gauguin had portrayed, again and again, semi-naked women in French Polynesia. In Amrita Sher-Gil’s self-portrait, art history is at once revered and reworked.

Young, brown-skinned women had for centuries been reduced to stereotypes, as signifiers of primitive passion. Here, the artist has taken back control of her representation. There is no shame in her nakedness: her skin is what she proudly inhabits. She is a creature of the West and the East and subservient to no one. She is Sikh, Hungarian, a painter and the subject of a painting — her painting. She is not a type: she’s a person.

Jennifer Higgie’s new book, The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits, is published on 18 March 

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