Why Female Artists Have Used the Self-Portrait to Demand Their Place in Art History
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, 1556. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
During the Renaissance, there was a well-known saying: “Every artist paints himself.” This catchphrase demonstrates the prominence of self-portraiture at the time, but also reveals the inherent gender bias baked into the notion of who was considered a true artist. Still, as the self-portrait gained popularity in the humanist age, female artists eagerly engaged with the genre. In her excellent book Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits, Frances Borzello tracks the story of female self-portraiture through the ages. She notes the singular importance of this particular genre for women as a “way to present a story about herself for public consumption,” a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.
For Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, self-portraiture was somewhat a matter of necessity. Forbidden—like all women at the time—from taking life-drawing classes, Anguissola turned her focus to female models, including herself. In her Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel from 1556, she depicted herself as the ultimate chaste woman, dressed modestly as she paints the Virgin Mary and Christ. Anguissola locks eyes with the viewer, confrontationally demure as if interrupted mid-stroke. Her decision to paint herself with the tools of her craft—a paint palette, brush, and mahlstick (a device used to support the artist’s hand)—was a relatively uncommon one in her era. Their inclusion suggests that she was fiercely resisting invisibility as an artist, determinedly displaying evidence of her devotion to and skill at her craft.
The 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s own self-portrait showing the artist at work, made around 1638–39, takes on an elevated, even reverential tone. She represented herself as the “Allegory of Painting,” a figure described in Cesare Ripa’s famous Iconologia, a Baroque book of iconography, as a dark-haired woman wearing a gold chain. Gentileschi created an opportunity to display the extensive physical demands of painting, as well as her concentrated mastery over the craft. By associating herself with a symbolic allegory, she brilliantly showed herself as the embodiment of painting. In the process, Borzello notes, she “invented a self-portrait type which no man could possibly inhabit,” while also asserting her talents in a world that preferred to ignore them.
In the 18th century, France saw a flourishing of female artistry. Some salons even opened their doors to a limited number of female artists. Among those was Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who also depicted herself in the act of painting, this time flanked by two female students. Her Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (1785) features the unromantic trappings of a working artist’s studio—a painter’s box, a spare canvas—alongside Labille-Guiard’s highly textured, fashionable gown, trimmed luxuriously with lace and feathers. Enticingly, the artist refused to show us the canvas she is working on in her self-portrait.
Scholar Laura Auricchio, among others, has argued that the portrait is simultaneously a savvy public-relations effort to promote the artist’s skills, as well as a criticism of the contradictions inherent to being a female artist. Artists at the time increasingly relied on public attention to secure commissions. As a woman, Labille-Guiard violated rules of bourgeois femininity in actively seeking public attention for her work. In this painting, Labille-Guiard additionally challenges the viewer by presenting her professional skills alongside all of the trappings of femininity. In depicting herself with two female pupils, Labille-Guiard also declares her solidarity with other female artists and her important role as a mentor.
Although of a similar theme, Marie Bashkirtseff’s famous self-portrait In the Studio, from 1881, could hardly be more different from Labille-Guiard’s. The Russian artist depicts a group of modestly dressed female painters in a life-drawing class, while a young, semi-nude boy models. (In the 19th century, women were typically not allowed to paint entirely nude models.) By changing the sex of both painter and model, Bashkirtseff upended the status quo, which prevented female artists from receiving the same acclaim as their male peers. In showcasing these painters hard at work, she demands further visibility for their efforts.
As the world entered the 20th century, female portraiture shifted. Many artists began to interrogate sexuality and pregnancy, topics which had once been scandalously taboo. Scholar Diane Radycki has described Paula Modersohn-Becker as the first Western female artist to depict her full figure in the nude in a self-portrait. While she cradles a pregnant stomach in the painting Self-Portrait on the sixth anniversary of marriage (1906), Modersohn-Becker was not actually pregnant at the time (in fact, she had recently left her husband to pursue painting in Paris). Art critic Sue Hubbard has suggested that we can read her pregnancy, then, as metaphorical; Modersohn-Becker saw herself as being in a fertile period of her artistic career, ready to create, free from the shackles of a repressive marriage. While her nude image recalls Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women wearing garlands around their necks, Modersohn-Becker defies the conventions of his male gaze by locking eyes with the viewer, declaring her personhood and dignity.
The demand for dignity and respect was in no short supply when it came to the paintings of global icon Frida Kahlo. In Arbol de la Esperanza (Tree of Hope) from 1946, Kahlo used a surreal double-image of herself to meditate on illness and pain, strength and femininity. Her nude form does not provoke sensuality—much of it is covered in white hospital sheets—but expresses the medical trauma she had endured. Rarely in Western art history do we see the female form as anything less than idealized. Here, it is shown in all its fragility. Kahlo’s other self, meanwhile, sits upright beside the bed, wearing a beautiful dress, staring straight at the viewer and holding a pink steel corset. She seems to suggest defiantly that neither her scars nor her illness lessens her femininity or her strength.
Artistic styles came and went in the 20th century, but certain traditions in women’s self-portraiture endured. Loïs Mailou Jones’s Self Portrait (1940) evokes the working-artist paintings of her predecessors. In her rendition, Jones brandishes four paintbrushes, proudly declaring her presence as a black female artist. She had recently met Alain Locke, one of the leaders of the New Negro movement, who urged her to explore her African roots and black identity in her art. In this painting, Jones depicts two African sculptures behind her, as if declaring her debt to the traditions of those artists who came before her.
Loïs Mailou Jones, Self Portrait, 1940. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Abstraction also brought new layers to female self-portraiture. While Yayoi Kusama is best known for her polka-dotted explorations of infinity, she has applied the same pointillism to her own visage. In a BBC interview, Kusama explained that “dots are symbols of the world, the cosmos. The Earth is a dot, the moon, the sun, the stars are all made up of dots. You and me, we are dots.” In Self Portrait (TWAY) from 2010, she literalized that sentiment. The painting, with its complementary yellow and purple patterns of dots, seems to indicate that the painter sees herself at one with the world around her.
As 1970s feminist art rose to prominence, female self-portraiture took on new, subversive angles. In her black-and-white photographs from this decade, Cindy Sherman meditated on images of women throughout Western art history and visual culture. In her self-portrait Untitled (Madonna) from 1975, she strikes a pose that simultaneously evokes a shrouded Virgin Mary and an emancipated 1920s flapper girl. While she exudes feminine passivity, that posturing is subverted by what the viewer knows—that Sherman was responsible for making the image. By asserting control over her own form, the artist confounds expectations of what it means to be the “object” of an audience’s gaze.
The ways in which art is consumed in the 21st century has done more to change female self-portraiture than anything else. Our increasingly digital experience of art and the female body is exemplified in Amalia Ulman’s popular Instagram project, which chronicles her semi-fictionalized transformation into tropes she saw popularized online such as “cute girl,” “sugar baby,” and “life goddess.” Her months-long “performance” through Instagram selfies catapulted female self-portraiture into the Internet age. At the same time, Ulman’s project confronts the question of authenticity in the selfie, the most modern form of self-portrait. In a 2014 image, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 5th September 2014), Ulman captures herself in a mirrored room, as if suggesting that her online image is one of infinite illusions and transmutations.
The means, mechanisms, and traditions of female self-portraiture have changed dramatically over time, but the genre has retained its enduring ability to transgress and subvert expectations, all while demanding that the world recognize and appreciate its female artists.