Every Orchid has its Thorns: Isabelle van Zeijl’s Representation of Feminine Beauty

JoAnne Artman Gallery
Dec 16, 2022 6:51PM

Isabelle van Zeijl’s stunning self-portraits incorporating real flowers as props leave the viewer in awe. The Dutch art photographer, whose work has appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and in various public collections around the world, applies the technique of the Old Masters through a contemporary lens. Her expansive oeuvre engages with themes related to perceptions of beauty, femininity, and self-identity, while simultaneously looking at the past, present, and future. Her captivating compositions and treatment of light reflects both her technical skill and her ability to engage meaningfully in the most subtle aspects of the human experience.

In For Me, Zeijl centers herself in the photograph, taking on the role of both subject and photographer, a signature part of her creative process. Zeijl looks over her left shoulder and stares directly into the camera, exposing part of her back. Her expression is neutral, and slightly surprised, as if the camera has caught her off guard. Although her clothes have been removed, the elaborate orchid headpiece seems to take the place of clothing, both in its intricately crafted texture and its function as a means of self-expression. All color has been drained from the image, leaving muted gray tones in contrast with brightly exposed hues of white in its wake. Looking at the photograph, you might forget it is not actually a painting, as Zeijl refers to the Old Masters’ application of light to manipulate forms. By removing any symbols of specific identity, like clothing or objects, Zeijl becomes a general subject, embodying an idea rather than a character.

This “idea” might represent the feminine experience, which is evoked in the flower motif. The inherent beauty and delicate nature of the butterfly orchid is placed in an uneasy tension with the gloomy backdrop and Zeijl’s pale skin. While the viewer is unable to look away from the unique formation of flora that seems to grow out of Zeijl’s head, one can not ignore the overall grim tone of the composition. Zeijl balances this conflict between beauty and anxiety as delicately as she handles her floral props. For Me does not want to ignore the oftentimes harmful reality of femininity within our social and cultural landscape, but rather, the photograph explores how these convergences of darkness and light contribute to and alter the identity of an individual.

In Serenity Portrait, Zeijl’s tone shifts. Although the artist boasts a similar floral arrangement placed on her head like an ancient crown, the contrast has been toned down and the flowers exhibit a bright shade of baby blue. Instead of the hazy, dark gray backdrop in For Me, Zeijl sits in front of a brighter background that exists in harmony with Zeijl and her flowers rather than in tension with them. Zeijl looks over her right shoulder with her eyes closed, her head tilted upwards, and smiles peacefully. It is clear that she is intentionally posing for the camera–and enjoying it. The viewer can not ignore the vibrant sense of life that emulates from the image as the flowers feel like they are growing so fast they might just grow out of frame. The viewer watches Zeijl bask in the glow of the studio lights and becomes engulfed in the feeling of peace and harmony that absorbs the scene. Serenity Portrait captures the brighter, more palatable aspects of beauty and femininity, but Zeijl understands that the themes conveyed in Serenity Portrait can not exist without the contrasting themes of For Me.

JoAnne Artman Gallery