Why Female Artists Have Used the Self-Portrait to Demand Their Place in Art History
For Italian Renaissance painter
The 17th-century Italian painter 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
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
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, 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 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
Artistic styles came and went in the 20th century, but certain traditions in women’s self-portraiture endured. 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.
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 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.