Self-portrait is a very common subject among painters since the early Renaissance. And of course, it is a frequent subject among women artists too, as the most evident example we have Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits. But today, I want to share with you the first self-portraits created by women.
The first one is the Self-portrait by Caterina van Hemessen, a painter of the Flemish Renaissance, the painting executed in oil oak in 1548, when the artist was 20 years old. She presents herself at an easel, holding a maulstick (a common device used to support the artist’s hand) while painting. This painting is from the 16th century. This painting is significant not only because is one of the earliest self-portraits by a woman in the modern age, and one of the first self-portraits by an artist of either gender displaying themselves in the act of painting, what was very unusual at that time. Even though self-portraits were common at that time, it was much more usual to artists to display themselves in a plain sitting or dressed up as a member of the upper classes. Artists rarely referred to their work directly or showed the tools of their profession.
This painting is one of the earliest in the Northern European tradition to show a painter with a brush, a palette, and an easel. She inscribed it with the words “I Caterina van Hemessen have painted myself/1548/Her aged 20”. This self-portrait earned her a considerable reputation during her lifetime.
Hemessen presents herself at half length, elegantly clothed in a black brocade dress and red velvet sleeves, and holding a brush, looking outwards as if at her own image while painting it on the oak panel in front of her. Such outfit would have been impractical to wear for an artist working with oils and brushes, which may insinuate that the clothes here are intended to indicate her social rank and attribute personal dignity. She has just begun the work on the depicted painting, without a background and only with a sketch of her head can be seen. Her face is painted with soft brushstrokes, while the textures of her gown are distinguished using a wider variety of brush marks.
There are some deliberate contradiction and explorations of mirror images. She holds the brush with her right hand; she would have corrected the reversal on the reflected image; her head as shown on the panel is undersized and situated on the top left; that is opposite to the position her head appears on the actual painting. Her head is turned in the direction of the viewer, but her eyes do not look at the viewer. And as is typical of her work, the background is plain and dark, giving no indication of the space.
The other painting is Self-portrait at an easel by Sofonisba Anguissola, she presents herself in the act of painting, applying mixed pigments to a canvas in which depicts the Virgin and Christ Child tenderly kissing (it is a devotional canvas). Her gaze at us, as if we have just interrupted her. Her expression is calm, reserved. She wears a simple black dress, possibly to connote modesty and virtue, this simplicity in fashion embodies the woman of court, as outlined by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528).
Some of her other self-portraits, such as one where she holds a small book, even include inscriptions like “Sophonisba Angusola virgo seipsam fecit 1554” that in English means “The virgin Sofonisba Anguissola made this herself in 1554”; to identify to identify herself as a chaste and virtuous woman. The inclusion of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in the self-portrait is considered as a further reflection of Sofonisba’s virginity. The Virgin Mary with Christ child were a very common subject at that time. So, it is likely that Sofonisba wanted to incorporate this intimate scene between mother and son to show/present herself as a virtuous woman.
Another important fact about this painting is that here, Sofonisba is displaying herself in the act of painting, associating herself with an established tradition of artists depicting themselves, and not all of them men. Since she was not the first woman to do it. It is easy to remember the names of some of her contemporaries such as Titian or Dürer, who painted self-portraits, but only in a few they did it including the painter’s tools (canvas, palette, maulstick).
The authenticity and provenance of Caterina van Hemessen’s self-portrait has been occasional the subject of doubts. However, all theories are not given much weight by art historians, and the prominence of the signature is taken as evidence of Caterina’s intention to mark the work as by her own hand.
- Catalogue: 2019. Historia de Dos Pintoras: Sofonisba Anguissola y Lavinia Fontana. Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, España.
- Catalogue: 1976. Women Artists: 1550-1950. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
- Images: Wikimedia Commons