Every Painter Paints Herself

“Her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) shows the artist, through her own eyes; beautiful, graceful, and at the same time confident and powerful”

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Artemisia Gentileschi – Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), c. 1638-39

I was thrilled when I found out that Artemisia Gentileschi‘s self portrait was coming to Vancouver. This rare Baroque female painter has long held my fascination and her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) shows the artist, through her own eyes; beautiful, graceful, and at the same time confident and powerful. This painting, and the ones by other women, are what I found myself looking for on my visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the exhibit, Portrait of the Artist.

The first piece that really caught my eye was Mary Knowles, A Self Portrait. It is created entirely with embroidery thread and was a gift to Queen Charlotte in 1779. My generation was possibly the last to learn how to embroider, prepare preserves, and cross our legs at the ankles instead of the knees. But it was a dying art. I have memories of my older sister sewing her embroidery sample to her skirt and finishing in tears. Driving heavy machinery turned out to be more to our tastes and fortunately for us the world was changing fast enough that it was permitted – unusual, but permitted.

“My generation was possibly the last to learn how to embroider, prepare preserves, and cross our legs at the ankles instead of the knees”

As a female artist in the 18th century, creating art in a man’s world usually meant creating it under the guise of the feminine arts. However, Mary Knowles was far from conventional. She was an abolitionist and married a spouse of her choice, which was unusual in the Quaker community. We largely take these things for granted now, but at the time, they were revolutionary ideas and had to be fought for.

“At the time, they were revolutionary ideas and had to be fought for”

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Mezzotint by Valentine Green after a Self Portrait by Maria Cosway, 1787

Being married to an artist, or being the daughter of an artist, could sometimes open up possibilities otherwise not available to women. However, even though Maria Cosway married an artist, Richard Cosway, he initially would not let her practice her art. He eventually did support her work, but this shows the extent of the social stigma around female artists. Despite this, her self-portrait in the exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery is refreshingly confident and depicts a woman entirely sure of herself.

“Her self-portrait in the exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery is refreshingly confident and depicts a woman entirely sure of herself”

One of the surprises in the the exhibit was Sarah Bernhardt. She was a French stage actress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and I hadn’t realized that she was also an artist. I first became interested in her life after seeing Alphonse Mucha‘s very captivating poster designs for some of her plays. Near the end of the exhibit, I came across two fantastic gems: a photograph of her in the act of painting, and a sculpture by her, A Self-Portrait as a Chimera. Bernhardt was something of a celebrity of her time and she lived her life with more freedoms than many women would have been afforded.

“Bernhardt was something of a celebrity of her time and she lived her life with more freedoms than many women would have been afforded”

There are so many artists that I admire, but the women who pursued their passion to make art, despite the incredible challenges they faced are absolutely inspiring. A quote in the exhibit says: “Every Painter Paints Himself”. It was recorded in the Renaissance and has been credited to more than one male painter. The statement is simply suggesting, I believe, that what an artist expresses on the canvas, is a reflection of himself – of who he is.

“There are so many artists that I admire, but the women who pursued their passion to make art, despite the incredible challenges they faced are absolutely inspiring”

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“Yes, throughout history every artist … painted herself, but she first had to paint herself into existence”

Yes, throughout history every female artist also painted herself, but she first had to paint herself into existence. Even those who did were often seen as an anomaly, either as someone who had transcended the weakness of her gender, or someone who was operating in an unnatural way. But each woman who chose to pursue her passion, despite, or perhaps because of, the obstacles that stood in her way, helped to create a world where we can now confidently say, “every painter paints herself”.

“Each woman who chose to pursue her passion, despite … the obstacles that stood in her way, helped to create a world where we can now confidently say, ‘every painter paints herself’.”

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IMG_1639 2.jpgThe exhibit, Portrait of the Artist, can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until February 4th, 2018. Facts about the artists’ lives were found in the descriptions in the exhibit and on Wikipedia. 

6 Comments Add yours

    1. Big City Art says:

      Thanks for reading Caril 🙂

      Like

  1. Melissa says:

    That’s my favourite so far! Painting themselves into existence rather than just painting their own reflection—it’s a good observation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Big City Art says:

      I’m so glad you like it! Thank you 🙂

      Like

  2. artschaft says:

    I particularly like Gentileschi’s story (and forceful painting style) because she went to great lengths to defend her honor after she was raped. It all happened in the early 17th century, but things haven’t changed that much to this day – women’s accusations are still being ignored. Let’s just hope #metoo will only continue to grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Big City Art says:

      Yes, I love her story too! It has inspired me from the first day I was introduced to her. Thank you for adding those biographical details. The story of what happened to Gentileschi is still such a current issue, especially right now. Let’s hope this time it doesn’t take 300 years for something to change 🙂

      Like

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