Interest in women’s art is booming. Successful major exhibitions of the work of Lee Krasner at the Barbican, Dora Maar and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at Tate Britain, Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery and Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy (which also had to cancel a planned Angelica Kauffman exhibition), to name but a few, demonstrate justified faith in the public’s desire to see such art and a recognition that women artists have hitherto been underrepresented in great collections.
Jennifer Higgie’s survey of the female self-portrait ranges from Catharina van Hemessen, who in 1548 painted the earliest surviving self-portrait of an artist seated at an easel, to Alice Neel, who died in 1984. Neel painted her first solo self-portrait at the age of eighty, naked, with swollen belly and sagging breasts, and cheerfully remarked, ‘Frightful, isn’t it? I love it. At least it shows a certain revolt against everything decent.’
‘Decency’ long kept women out of life-drawing studios and impeded their progress. Husbands and babies commanded time and attention. The creative impulse might not be gendered, but social expectations assuredly were. To paint one’s own portrait, once mirrors had been invented, was for women a pragmatic choice: cheap, easily done, educative. The earliest illustration here comes from a 1402 French version of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris and is utterly charming. In a warm, richly decorated orange room, a woman sits at what looks like a dressing table, apparently staring at her reflection in a mirror. Look again. The ‘reflection’ is her painting. She’s painting a picture of herself, not preparing to go out. She holds a small round mirror in her left hand and a brush in her right. She’s working and observing.
Higgie celebrates the energy that propels artists to learn and discover, and her enthusiasm provides a coherent thread throughout this patchwork history. She’s good at describing pictures and makes you long to see them. The text is simply written, almost as if for young readers; complicated depths are not explored (negative viewpoints are sometimes mentioned but are mostly put to one side). In the mini-biographies, she picks out salient details: Artemisia Gentileschi’s rage (she was raped at the age of seventeen by an associate of her father, also a painter); Sofonisba Anguissola’s supportive family; Mary Beale’s sons and husband working for her in the studio; Marie Bashkirtseff’s longing for ‘the freedom without which one cannot become a real artist’; Judith Leyster suing Frans Hals for stealing one of her apprentices (some might be surprised that a female painter had apprentices at all); Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s genius for self-promotion; Rosalba Carriera responding to critics who blithely described her appearance in Self-Portrait as ‘Winter’ as ugly, her gaze blunt and direct; Leonora Carrington serving a guest an omelette filled with his hair, cut off while he slept. Ugh. But you can see the point: Samson’s power meets women’s wit.
Gentileschi went on answering back to her rapist by painting works that referenced her vulnerability and desire for vengeance: Susannah and the Elders and Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr, her ‘first true likeness by her own hand’. Her Judith Beheading Holofernes is among the most gruesome paintings I’ve ever seen. It was bought by Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, who was reluctant to pay for it. She was drawn to depicting powerful women – Clio, Corisca, Cleopatra, Lucretia and the Jewish heroine Esther – and, most strikingly, produced another ‘true likeness’ in Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, which showed, if nothing else, that she felt no need to display deference towards men or to apologise for being a woman in a field dominated by them. Higgie applies words like ‘electric’, ‘brilliance’, ‘powerful’ and ‘strength’ to Gentileschi: ‘despite having been brutalised’, she has risen above her pain to picture herself centre stage, ‘very much alive and in total control of her own representation’.
This book may be subtitled ‘500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits’, but Higgie neither restricts herself to self-portraits nor offers a linear history. Chapters are organised by theme – ‘Allegory’, ‘Smile’, ‘Easel’, ‘Hallucination’, ‘Translation’, ‘Solitude’, ‘Naked’ – and in them the 17th century cohabits with the 20th. The self-portrait emerges from a welter of other works and lives. Some of the artists chosen are well known, such as Gwen John, Frida Kahlo, Paula Modersohn-Becker; some reached old age, such as Loïs Mailou Jones, Anguissola, Carriera; some died heartbreakingly young, such as Bashkirtseff, Modersohn-Becker and the remarkable Hungarian-Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil. Sher-Gil painted herself as a semi-naked Tahitian in subtle mockery of Gauguin’s portrayals of other brown-skinned women. She’d never been to Tahiti but she had been the subject of the male gaze. If answering back was important, it was never the only or even the most pressing concern. After studying in Paris, Sher-Gil settled in India and was at once fascinated by its colour and light and haunted by its poverty – by the ‘dark-bodied, sad-faced, incredibly thin men and women who move silently looking almost like silhouettes’, as she put it. They seemed to her ‘strangely beautiful in their ugliness’ and she set out to capture them. She also studied local traditions, the Mughal and Pahari schools, miniatures, cave paintings, temples, the colourful markets of Simla and the villages of Punjab, all the while railing against ‘tourist painting’, those ‘mediocre specimens of fifth-rate Western art that still abound in the local exhibitions’.
Sher-Gil, who died aged twenty-eight, came from a wealthy background. In earlier eras, successful women artists, like Gentileschi, Kauffman and van Hemessen, tended to come from artist families and were taught by their fathers. Suzanne Valadon, the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress, who grew up in Montmartre and worked as an artist’s model, had neither wealth nor a helpful father, only astonishing drive and a love of drawing. She was ‘wild’; or, as she put it, ‘I thought too much, I was haunted, I was a devil, I was a boy.’ In paintings by Renoir, Puvis de Chavannes, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, she appears, says Higgie, as ‘a mythical creature, a naked temptress, a sweet-faced coquette, a virginal beauty and a sour-faced drunk’, but never as a boy, or, as far as Renoir was concerned, as an artist (she modelled for him for five years): it was monstrous, in his view, that women could be writers, lawyers, politicians and so on, and ‘the woman artist is just as ridiculous’. That she was once a model must have made it still more ridiculous to him.
Some of Valadon’s most striking works are naked self-portraits, although her ‘unflinching’ portrait of herself at the age of sixty, ‘bare-breasted, raw, scowling’, isn’t included here. (We are given instead Family Portrait, showing the artist encircled by her mother, husband and son, and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Tracey Emin.) Higgie observes, ‘If anyone has the right to depict herself naked, it’s a model: those nameless women whose faces and bodies have sold countless paintings over the centuries, and whose lives we very rarely know anything about.’
Higgie’s book is a riposte to Renoir and centuries of unknowing and misjudging. Reading it is like travelling with an ever-excited companion who has lots to say, not all of it profound as it tumbles out in profusion and partisanship, and not always quite trustworthy, but always compelling. She is rightly enraged at the historical neglect of women artists. The marvellous illustrations here confirm her assessment of the quality of their work. Few nowadays would argue with her proposition that the history of art is ‘the history of many women not receiving their dues’. Beginning research for this book, she was ‘staggered’ by the depth and variety of paintings made by women, despite the formidable restrictions placed in their way, and despite believing herself already well informed on the subject. Ending her book, I felt much the same way, and excited at the prospect of finding out more.