Portraits of Ladies by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Portraits of Ladies


In days of yore (a month or so ago), I went to the cinema twice in quick succession. That already feels historical, now that cinemas and all places of public entertainment have closed and we are urged not to leave our houses.

While some scholars have been dusting off Daniel Defoe’s 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year and others have recalled how the Derbyshire village of Eyam self-quarantined in 1665, my solace has been a new project on 18th-century women painters. Off and on this year (now off), I have been visiting the Paul Mellon Centre library in Bedford Square to read about the London art scene at that time, and especially about Angelica Kauffman, born in Switzerland but resident in London for sixteen years, and the French portraitist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Hence the thrill of seeing Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, about a female artist living at the end of the 18th century.

Portraiture was a branch of a profession that to some extent meant an itinerant life: if Marie Antoinette wanted her portrait painted and she was at Versailles, you went to Versailles. And if, subsequently, the revolutionaries hunted you as a royalist, you went into exile. Vigée Le Brun lived in Italy, Austria, Russia, Germany and England, painting and pleasing the elite. Her Souvenirs, in three riveting volumes first published in 1835, tells us much about her journeyings and about life at court in St Petersburg, but reading it left me no wiser about practicalities. A writer can travel light, but a painter needs supplies: canvas, colours, charcoal. What happened if you ran out of burnt sienna or ultramarine when you were miles from any supplier? How, under normal circumstances, did you manage transportation? Puzzling over these matters during the opening scenes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I knew exactly how important it was for the painter to retrieve the crate that slips overboard. She is being rowed to a remote island. She has a commission to paint a portrait. The crate holds her canvas. She dives in.

Every detail of Sciamma’s film was a joy to me, none more so than the terms of the painter’s commission: she must pretend to be a walking companion, observe without being noticed and paint the subject from memory, in secret. It is a superb metaphor for the female artist, hidden from history and required to work without the advantages that men have. Asked why women are barred from studying the male nude and whether it is for reasons of modesty, Marianne, the artist, answers that it is because if they were permitted to do so they would produce history paintings and challenge men at the highest level. Portraiture was a lowly genre (but one that has, I submit, generally worn better over time).


History painting as a category included stories from mythology and literature and gave a licence to portray naked females; ostensibly illustrating chastity or honour, such paintings’ real appeal was sex and, possibly, violence. Charlotte Brontë observed the hypocrisy of this in Villette. Lucy Snowe visits the art museum in Brussels and sits in front of one such offering: a painting of Cleopatra, voluptuous, stretched on a sofa. Snowe sardonically notes the ‘preposterous’ size of the canvas, the ‘affluence of flesh’ and how little of the abundant drapery covers the larger-than-life figure. The woman should be up and doing the work of two plain cooks, she snappily thinks, dismissing the whole thing – the use of women’s bodies in the great tradition of Western narrative art – as ‘an enormous piece of claptrap’.


Brontë would have had a thing or two to say about later developments. In the mid-20th century, the beauty parade came to television as ‘family entertainment’. There was a long tradition of lining women up and judging who was the most beautiful, and even if beauty wasn’t only skin deep, skin mattered: in the UK and the USA, it had to be white. Bit by bit the racist rules were slackened, but the ‘vital statistics’ – the requirement that bust, waist and hip measurements be 32, 22, 32 (inches) – remained.

Misbehaviour, the second film I saw, tells the story of the demonstration against the Miss World competition in London in 1970. The Women’s Liberation movement had begun and men like Eric Morley and Bob Hope were given the custard pie treatment (in this case, bags of flour hurled from the auditorium) for their routine sexism. The message of director Philippa Lowthorpe’s film is in the spirit of Villette: the measuring and parading of beautiful young women in tiaras and bathing costumes is demeaning claptrap.

As it happened, the winner in 1970 was Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, and the runner-up Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen, both women of colour. The narrative draws extensively on their stories. Beauty itself and the women whose beauty offered them a route to a more prosperous life were never the objects of the protest. The film is respectful towards the contestants while managing to make the show itself, and the system of patriarchy that upheld it, seem quaint and idiotic.

Like the women who won Miss World, Vigée Le Brun and Kauffman dealt in charm: they were clever, articulate and beautiful and the world rewarded them. Artemisia Gentileschi, who was due to be the subject of a major exhibition this month at the National Gallery in London, was a beauty too, as can be seen from the self-portraits she painted to promote her image. She’s best known for history paintings like Judith Beheading Holofernes. Unlike a lot of narrative paintings from the era, which – as Brontë noted – are pretentious and overblown, hers have a steely, even sombre power, and there’s venom in the action she depicts. Judith’s strong arm really is sawing off the man’s head: she means it. The back story is to be found in a new acquisition by the National Gallery, intended to be the centrepiece of the show: a self-portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria. St Catherine was tortured on the wheel, and Artemisia, who was raped at seventeen and then tortured by the authorities when the perpetrator came to trial, depicts herself with her hand on the wheel.

Artemisia, like Vigée Le Brun and Kauffman, was a painter’s daughter with access to training in the studio at home. It was a collaborator of her father’s who raped her, which may explain why she was early on attracted to the subject of Susanna and the Elders, painting the nude Susanna trying to cover herself and the leering men breathing on her neck. After the trial she went to Florence, married and established herself as an independent artist, being the first woman to become a member of the Academy of the Arts of Drawing. She wanted, she said, to ‘show what a woman can do’, and she did.

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