5 Women portrait artists you need to know

Natalie Rudd  7 June 2021

These striking self-portraits by women artists had a significant impact on the course of art history. 

Sofonisba Anguissola, 1532–1625

Sofonisba Anguissola's self portrait
Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel, late 1550s. Oil on canvas, 66 x 57cm (26 x 22 1⁄2 in.), Museum-Zamek, Lancut, Poland

The Greek philosopher Aristotle held the view that women were fundamentally inert and passive: the pliant egg awaiting the dynamic seed. This classical philosophy informed much Renaissance thinking.

The blank canvas and the pot of paint were considered feminine, whereas the actions of the artist were essentially masculine. The idea of a woman working as an artist was a contradiction in terms. Given this patriarchal context, Sofonisba Anguissola’s success as a painter during her lifetime is all the more extraordinary.

Anguissola was born in Cremona, northern Italy, the daughter of Amilcare Anguissola, a nobleman of modest wealth. Anguissola had five sisters and one brother, and Amilcare ensured that each of his children received an excellent education. Anguissola’s artistic talents soon emerged, prompting her father’s radical decision to allow her to train with local master painters for three years.

Anguissola was aware of the disadvantages she faced as a woman. Many of her male contemporaries had received many more years of training than she had, and her status as a woman prevented her from competing for public commissions for historical or religious paintings. She knew the risks of overstepping the mark and took the decision to specialize in the lowly genre of portraiture, attracting private commissions. Through self-portraiture, Anguissola found the freedom to explore issues of identity and gender, using her intelligence to make subtle transgressions.

 

Clara Peeters, active 1607–21

Clara Peeters still life
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers and Gilt Cups , 1612. Oil on panel, 59 x 49cm (in.), Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

Many artists have concealed their self-portraits within larger scenes: Filippo Lippi slipped his face into a crowd, and Jan van Eyck painted himself as a tiny reflection in a small mirror. Clara Peeters took the cameo appearance to new levels of miniaturization. Working on a tiny scale, she placed portraits of herself within the polished surfaces of the pewter jugs and gilt goblets featured in her still-life paintings. She often appears multiple times across a single painting, as if inviting the viewer to participate in a game of ‘spot the artist’.

Very little is known about Peeters. Even the basic details of her life are lost. We do not know if she was self-taught or if she received formal training. There is no evidence of her affiliation to an artists’ guild. It is believed that she was born in Antwerp in the late sixteenth century and that many of her works were painted when she was a young woman. Given the limited opportunities for women within the seventeenth-century art world, it stands to reason that Peeters would draw inspiration from her immediate domestic environment.

Still-life subject matter was easy to access. Approximately forty paintings by Peeters have survived. These works reveal her skillful rendering of a multitude of surfaces, from fruit, flowers, biscuits and cheese, to pewter, ceramic and glass. Her selected items are usually placed in the foreground, carefully arranged on a table for our delectation. This is mouth-watering realism.

 

Anne Seymour Damer, 1748–1828

Anne Seymour Damer bust
Anne Seymour Damer, Self-Portrait , 1778. Marble, height 60cm (23 ⅝ in.), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

"Mrs Damer, daughter of General Conway, has chosen a walk more difficult and far more uncommon than painting. The annals of statuary record few artists of the fair sex, and not one that I recollect of any celebrity" — Horace Walpole, 1780

Negotiating the macho world of sculpture was a very difficult thing for a woman to do in eighteenth-century England. The British amateur sculptor Anne Seymour Damer had the talent, financial means and perseverance needed to break new ground. Her aristocratic parents supported her unusual interest, investing in specialist carving, modelling and anatomical tuition. After removing herself from an unhappy marriage (her ex-husband later committed suicide), Damer found the freedom and focus to pursue her practice as a sculptor. She gained recognition for neoclassical bust portraits of various notable figures including politicians and actors, and for her animal sculptures. Damer was the source of much society gossip, not just because of her unconventional pursuit of sculpture, but also as a result of her close relationships with women and her preference for masculine clothing.

Damer’s Self-Portrait of 1778 is a rare work. There are few sculpted self-portraits in eighteenth-century art, fewer still made by women. Damer assumes a composed and contemplative full-frontal pose, her downward gaze avoiding eye contact with the viewer, as if focusing on deeper intellectual concerns. Unlike many of her female contemporaries, Damer chose not to wear the latest fashions for her self-portrait, preferring to adorn her body with the genderneutral folds of Greek drapery. Her hair is natural and not "done".

The symmetrical handling of the face shows the direct influence of classical ideals of balance and poise. There is no risk of the sitter going unidentified: Damer carved her name into the work at the front and at the back. The Greek inscription translates as ‘Anne Seymour Damer from Britain, made herself’. The choice of Greek adds a further classical reference and also highlights the artist’s extensive education.

 

Helene Schjerfbeck, 1862–1946

helene schjerfbeck potrait
Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait with Red Spot, 1944. Oil on canvas, 45 x 37cm (17 3/4  x 14 1/2 in.)

Helene Schjerfbeck enjoyed considerable artistic success in her home country of Finland during her lifetime, becoming well known for her expressive and painterly portraits, landscapes and genre scenes. She experimented with self-portraiture throughout her career, shifting from early realist representations to increasing stylization as her personal aesthetic developed.

Schjerfbeck’s most startling self-portraits were produced in her eighties. She created over twenty paintings and drawings of herself in the final two years of her life. Her substantial end-of-life enquiry was perhaps inspired by Rembrandt’s late flowering of self-portraiture. It also resolved the issue of having few remaining sitters. She said, ‘The model is always available, although it isn’t always pleasant to see oneself.’

 

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1876–1907

Paula Modersohn-Becker
Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary,​ 1906. Tempera on canvas, 101.8 x 70cm (40 1⁄8 x 27 1⁄2 in.)

The long-held notion of the sexually driven artist commanding the attention of his submissive female (and often naked) muse resonates across art history. Many women struggled to assert their identity within this entrenched myth. Paula Modersohn-Becker invented a new way of representing female creativity. In 1906, she decided to take leave from her husband and her home in Worpswede, Germany. She set out for Paris to push her practice as a painter. Taking inspiration from Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and the haunting Egyptian mummy paintings in the Louvre, she developed a unique figurative style involving the application of thick lozenges of pastel-coloured paint onto the picture surface.

During the same year, she made the radical decision to paint herself naked to the waist. Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906) is one of the first naked female self-portraits in western art history. The artist assumes an almost sculptural solidity, standing with confidence and poise. She addresses her audience with a clear and steady gaze, gently embracing her rounded belly. Although Modersohn-Becker was not thought to be pregnant at the time of making this work, she was under considerable pressure to return to Worpswede to start a family.

She appears to be deep in thought in this painting, as if musing on her future. Her swollen abdomen signifies a maternal direction; however, it also points to the inherent productivity of the female body. In presenting herself as naked and pregnant, Modersohn-Becker acknowledges her ability to operate as a generator of new forms, both physically and artistically. This self-portrait therefore acts as a kind of manifesto, confirming her creative intent and her legitimacy as a woman and an artist. In 1906 she wrote, "I am – ME – and hope to become ME more and more."

 

The Self-Portrait (Art Essentials) by Natalie Rudd book cover

The Self-Portrait (Art Essentials) by Natalie Rudd is published by Thames & Hudson, £10.99

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