Dame Laura Knight was an English artist who worked in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint. She painted in the figurative and realist tradition, also she embraced the English Impressionism. In her career Laura Knight was among the most successful and popular painters in Britain.
In 1929 she was created a Dame, and in 1936 became the first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768.
Self-portrait with nude
It’s a painting of 1913, this painting marked a turning point in Laura Knight’s life as an artist and woman. Because it was the first time a female artist showed herself painting a nude model. The model was Ella Naper (who fascinated the artist and her husband when they were living in the bohemian artist community Lamorna Valley).
This painting is a complex and formal composition set in a studio. By using mirror Knight painted herself and Naper as seen by someone entering the studio behind both of them. When Knight was an art student she was not allowed to directly paint from nude models but was restricted to work from casts and copy existing draws (like all female art students at the time). Laura Knight deeply resented this and this painting is clearly a challenge and a reaction to those rules.
With this canvas, she expressed a twofold desire: it is a “demonstrative” self-portrait; and by duplicating the image, she achieves three planes of female representation: painter, model and figuration; completing the picture’s circular composition, thereby asserting the autonomy in the creative process and a version of female identity that challenges the essentialism of “woman” according to the rules of the exclusive heterosexist regime.
Self-portrait with nude was first shown in 1913 at the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in Newlyn. It was well received by the local press and other artists. Although the Royal Academy rejected it for exhibition, it was shown at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in London.
A critic in The Daily Telegraph, the painting was described as “vulgar” and it was suggested that “it might quite appropriately have stayed in the artist’s studio”. Despite this negative reaction, the artist continued to exhibit this painting throughout all her career, and it continued to receive press criticism.
After Knight’s death the painting, now better known simply as Self-portrait (1913) was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and is nowadays considered both a key work in the story of female self-portraiture and as symbolic of wider female emancipation.
In 2015, Simon Schama described the painting as a “masterpiece” and “incomparably, her greatest work, all at once conceptually complex, heroically independent, formally ingenious and lovingly sensual”.