Femininity through Photorealism in the Portraiture of Mary Jane Ansell

Mary Jane Ansell paints female subjects with imaginative accessories like a masquerade mask, a butterfly mobile, or a deer skull. In a new series of paintings at Arcadia Contemporary in New York, Ansell directs her subjects as much as she paints them, creating a unique style that blends portraiture and still life with a photorealistic approach.

In Liberty’s Arc (2015), a figure clothed in a military costume poses between American and British flags, clutching a gun in one hand. The fabric conforms to her body and ripples with highlights and shadows. Ansell is highly skilled at creating an illusory sense of textures. Her process involves building up a monochrome grisaille underpainting, then applying transparent and opaque layers of paint on top. This technique gives what Ansell calls an “egg shell smooth” sheen to the canvas, illuminating details like jacket buttons and glowy skin with effective clarity. The artist cares deeply about how skin is painted: She dislikes the “homogenized brown-ish skin tones” that some artists employ, preferring to paint flesh with a more realistic range of colors in her own painting.

As if plucked from a contemporary fashion editorial, the figures in Ansell’s paintings are often pixie-like, with well-articulated eyebrows and glowing skin. In Aurelia and Lunette (both 2015), the subjects are coy, wearing diaphanous, feminine clothing with frilly edges. The figure in Aurelia faces toward a window and sweetly holds a butterfly in her palm; in Lunette, the subject turns away from the viewer and grasps her hair above the nape of her neck.

The gentle, harmless figures depicted in Aurelia and Lunette sharply contrast with the bold, confident females found in A Winged Consort II and Herald (both 2015), the subjects of which are strikingly fierce and meet the viewer’s gaze head-on. Herald continues the narrative of Liberty’s Arc, picturing another woman seated between the British and American flags, this time holding a rifle across her lap with a red daisy poking out of the barrel. In this painting, the subject is more convincing as a weapon-toting model than as a soldier. Still, Ansell’s conflation of ideas here complicates our understanding of femininity—as expressive, charged, and potentially volatile.

In this exhibition, Ansell puts forth a multitude of representations of the female form with intricate, painterly attention to detail. At a moment in U.S. history when guns and national flags are especially charged political symbols, the details in Ansell’s paintings are poignant as cultural signifiers open to interpretation.


Anna Furman


Mary Jane Ansell U.S. Premiere Exhibition” is on view at Arcadia Contemporary, New York, Jun. 18–Jul. 10, 2015.


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