The art historical canon is dominated by male artists. It is only in the course of the nineteenth century that women increasingly participate in the professional artistic milieu. Before the nineteenth century, women had limited access to artistic training and often they had to quit painting as soon as they married. Their work was often also not appreciated in the same way as work by male colleagues. Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) for instance wrote the following in his diary in 1521:
Master Gerard, the miniature painter, has a daughter of about 18 years old. Her name is Susanna and she illuminated a small piece of paper, a Saviour, for which I have paid her 1 guilder. It is a great mirable that a woman is able to make something like that.
While Dürer was traveling through the Netherlands, he met Gerard Horenbout and his daughter Susanna Horenbout (1503 – 1554). He is impressed with her skills and decides to buy one of her works. His judgment about her work is both praising and destructive. He pays Susanna a low prize of 1 guilder, indicating that he only appreciated the work as a curiosity. However, nowadays we do know about a number of female painters from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century, who all had an influence on the art historical canon.
The self-portrait was one of the most important genres in painting for female artists. For them, this genre was a way to present themselves to a greater audience, while remaining in control of the way this was done. From the Renaissance onwards, the self-portrait has been an important genre in the fine arts, and female artists in particular have experimented with it.
When we think of self-portraits, the usual image that pops up in our head is that of a naturalistic depiction of the artist in front of his/her easel, holding his palette and brushes in his hands. In other words, an image in which the artist includes the attributes of his trade. However, the first self-portraits of artists in the Renaissance don’t allude to the profession of the artists at all. Examples are the self-portrait of Dürer from 1493 (image 1) or Andrea Mantegna’s self-portrait (image 2) in La Camera degli Sposi (Palazzo Ducale, Mantua).
It is only around 1550 that artists started to depict themselves in front of their easel. The first artist that did so was Catharina van Hemessen (1528 – 1588). Catharina was the daughter of the Antwerp painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen, and probably learned to paint in her father’s studio. Later she worked at the court of Mary of Hungary (1505 – 1558).
In 1548 Catharina painted her self-portrait, in which she depicted herself in front of her easel, holding her palette and brushes (image 3). She is wearing fancy clothes: a beautiful black satin dress and red velvet sleeves. Her clothes as well as her modest demeanor and tucked-in elbows show that she is a respectable woman. She signed her work with: “Ego Caterina de Hemessen me pinxi 1548. Etatis sua 20” (I, Catharina van Hemessen, painted myself [in] 1548. 20 years old). It is likely that Catharina was inspired by illustrations in manuscripts which depicted legendary artistic women from Antiquity.
A female artist thus created a new subgenre: the self-portrait of the artist at work. The iconography probably developed from the tradition of Pictura or allegorical depictions of painting. In these allegorical paintings, Pictura was often portrayed as a woman, sitting at her easel and holding a palette and brushes.
A contemporary of Catharina van Hemessen gained international fame for her portraits: Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 – 1625). She was from a noble family and her father sent her to the artist Bernardino Campi to learn how to paint. In 1559, Sofonisba was invited to work at the court of Philip II in Madrid. However, even as a noble woman, she was not allowed to study male anatomy. Therefore, she was forced to work from models in her own surroundings.
Sofonisba experimented with new ways of portraying people. Her portraits of her family members have an informal and intimate character. She also painted a number of self-portraits, in which she presented her view of the place of the female artist. A self-portrait attributed to Sofonisba shows an interesting strategy of the artist (image 4). In this painting, she portrayed herself as a portrait being painted by her teacher Bernardino Campi. This way, she was able to present herself in a witty and unthreatening way, in which she acknowledges the superiority of her teacher.
Her other self-portraits show a different message. Normally, men were seen as creative actors and women as passive objects for painting. However, Sofonisba portrayed herself often as an artist at work, indicating that she was not just the passive object of her painting.
The genre of the self-portrait was a way for female artists to express their artistic ambitions. It is remarkable that the percentage of artists depicting themselves with the attributes of their craft, is much higher among female artists than among their male colleagues. It seems that women used this genre to emphasize their professionalism. With this genre, they would be able to measure up to their male colleagues: painting a self-portrait was a way of emancipation.
Male artists followed the example set by female artists: they also started to depict themselves as a painter. Anthonis Mor (1519 – 1575) painted his self-portrait in 1558 (image 5). With this painting, he did not wanted to emphasize his craftsmanship, but he rather wanted to profile himself as the court painter to the Spanish king. He depicted a Greek poem on the empty canvas in front of him. This way he argues that he surpasses antique artists such as Apelles and Zeuxis. His self-portrait was for Mor a way to present himself as a pictor doctus, both a painter and a man of science.
The seventeenth century knew several outstanding female artists. Michaelina Wautier (1604 – 1689) was one of them. Virtually nothing is known about her life. We do not know whether she was trained as an artist or where she received such a training. We do know that she had a younger brother, Charles Wautier (1609 – 1703), who was also an artist. They lived together in Brussels and probably shared a studio. Michaelina was a successful artist and she worked for important patrons and clients. Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria admired her work, and owned at least four of her paintings.
Michaelina was an exceptional artist, as she didn’t feel limited to one specific genre. She painted still lifes, portraits, religious pieces and history pieces. The most ambitious painting of her hand is Triumph of Bacchus (image 6). This is the biggest painting Michaelina made. With this work she showed that she mastered one of the most important aspects of a painter’s training – the anatomy of the male body. Usually female artists were not allowed to study the male body: this was considered not done. It is not clear whether Michaelina did have access to such anatomy classes, but it is clear that she succeeded in painting the male body convincingly. Another interesting aspect of this painting, is that Michaelina inserted a self-portrait in her Triumph of Bacchus. On the right side, she painted herself as part of the procession, while looking directly at the viewer.
Michaelina interpreted the theme of Bacchus in her own, original way. The painting contains several authentic details, which cannot be seen in earlier painting depicting the triumph of Bacchus. This indicates that Michaelina had quite some artistic freedom for this commission. The integrated self-portrait can even be considered ahead of its time. This interesting way of self-presentation forced her to come up with a new pictoral formula. It is likely that she looked at antique prototypes for this.
Besides her self-portrait in Triumph of Bacchus, Michaelina also painted a self-contained self-portrait (image 7). This portrait is executed with great virtuosity. She depicted herself in front of her easel, holding her palette and her brushes with her left hand. In her right hand she holds a paint brush, as if she is ready to start painting. The architectural space is rather undefined: only a column is visible behind her. She is sitting on a red chair, and is wearing a black and white satin dress.
A timepiece is lying on the easel. With a pink ribbon, a key is attached to this timepiece. Pendants llike this were very expensive and rare in the seventeenth century. They are often depicted in still lifes by Dutch and Flemish artists, in which they figure as a vanitas symbol. With this watch, Michaelina refers to the transience of her youth, beauty and life in general. This watch is an original contribution of Michaelina to the iconography of the self-portrait. Usually in the context of portraits, a skull was added as a vanitas symbol. With this self-portrait, Michaelina shows that she is aware of her exceptional talent, but puts this in perspective with a moralizing message.
It is not clear what kind of sources Michaelina used for inspiration. However, it seems likely that she was influenced by the self-portrait of Anthonis Mor. With her self-portrait, Michaelina wanted to distinguish herself from Antwerp artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, who portrayed themselves as courtiers or rich burghers, without any reference to their trade. The way Michaelina depicted herself seems to refer to her female predecessors. An important question is whether she was familiar with the work of artists such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Catharina van Hemessen and Artemisia Gentileschi.
On the one hand, Michaelina’s painting fits into the tradition of the female self-portrait. However, at the same time, she breaks with this tradition. Her predecessors depicted themselves in their finest and most expensive clothing, while Michaelina presents herself with more nonchalance. She is wearing a satin dress, but her collar is left open. Michaelina presented herself in the intimacy of her own surroundings. She would have never left the house looking like that.
It is clear that the self-portrait has a long tradition. The self-portrait of the artist at work is an invention by a sixteenth-century female artist: Catharina van Hemessen. With this subgenre, Catharina wanted to emphasize her professionalism. At the same time, she presented herself as part of a specific social class by means of the clothes she is wearing. Other artistic women follow her example.
Even later, in the seventeenth century, the iconography invented by Catharina remains the fixed formula for self-portraits by female artists. Michaelina also follows the rules of the decorum. Her self-portrait fits in with the tradition of female self-portraits and at the same time breaks with that tradition. It is clear that she practiced self-fashioning in a thoughtful way, just like all female artists from the sixteenth-century onwards. In her later Triumph of Bacchus, Michaelina dared to take greater risks in the roleplay of the portrait historié.
Want to read more?
- Frances Borzello, Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, Thames & Hudson 2018.
- Frances Borzello, A World of Our Own: Women As Artists Since the Renaissance, Watson-Guptill Publications 2000.
- Amanda Scherker, How Female Artists Have Used the Self-Portrait to Demand Their Place in Art History (13 May 2019).
- Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Michaelina Wautier 1604 – 1689: Triomf van een vergeten talent, BAI (Kontich) 2018.
- Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Vrouwenstreken: Onvergetelijke schilderessen uit de Lage Landen, Lannoo (Tielt) 2010.