Walking in to the latest major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, you are greeted by the cool, self-possessed gaze of Sofonisba Anguissola, the artist and the subject. She has taken for herself the role of St Luke the evangelist in painting the “first” portrait of the Virgin Mary. Then you look at the caption, and find this was painted in 1556.
It is not just the quality of the work here that surprises, but that a woman should be granted such a prominent place, so early. But as you proceed through Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, at every point it is the female artists who stand out. Of the 56 diverse paintings here, a quarter are by women – a surprisingly large percentage for a show covering such a time frame.
The curators suggest that the self-portrait particularly appealed to women artists because they were compensating for their lack of access to models, and taking one of the few avenues available to them for self-promotion. Both statements are undoubtedly true, but it also seems that these factors were not so great a disadvantages as they might seem, at least in the specialist area of the self portrait. The women, being forced to look inward, to analyse and argue for their professional status, produced powerful paintings that have a lot to say.
One of the better known here is Artemisia’s Gentileschi’s portrait of herself as the allegory of painting. It is painted from over her shoulder, and her body is wide out, stretched expansively over her large canvas. Even more surprising, perhaps, is Judith Leyster’s self portrait from around 1630. Judith shows herself painting a laughing fiddler – her alter ego, and certainly no representative of respectability – and she twists casually away from her work, twisting towards the viewer. (About two decades later she was being described as the “leading star” of her home town of Haarlem – which reminds me of the Latin women scholars frequent set up in a similar role.)
There was something powerful for these women in being their own muse. By contrast, William Hogarth’s self portrait from about 1757 – at a time he was making a bid for respectability – shows him at work on a canvas of Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, but she’s merely sketched, undeveloped – not at all real.
The women are also very real, honest in their flesh. That realism comes to its peak in the show centuries later with Jenny Saville’s immensely powerful Juncture (1994). The huge painting, something like double life-size, shows the artist’s back. Her flesh bulges and folds, and shows the natural blemishes of life, and as a finishing touch her nose is touched sideways against the edge of the frame.
Gazing on to the Saville with lively curiosity is the Polish artist Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska, a scholarly but attractive matriarch peering through a giant monocle, book in hand. As a statement of serious intent, it has its own power. She looks every bit a member of the Academie Francaise, to which she had been elected in 1766.
But I was particularly taken by the challenge of Sabine Lepsius, in a canvas painted in 1885 when she entered Carl Gussow’s school for women artists at the age of 21. Her boyish hairstyle, thdefiantnt tilt of her chin and her half-lowered eyes all say: “So?!”
There are also self-conscious portraits of “Beauty” here, in Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat and Angelica Kauffman’s The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry. The latter doesn’t say much about the artist herself, but suggests a great deal about her relationship with the younger painter Maria Hadfield Cosway (Poetry) – who is painted in glowing light.
And there are more paintings that challenge the viewer, and their preconceptions of art. Suzanne Valadon, the artist’s model determined to take the active place in the studios of Montmartre late in the 19th century, lies in a casual pose, cigarette unattractively clenched in her mouth, wearing bright, everyday clothing. A challenge indeed to the traditional “artist” view of the female figure.
Even more overtly political is Charley Toorop’s bleak Self Portrait with Winter Branches painted in the occupied Netherlands in 1944. The taut, tired lines on her face reflect the devastation behind her – a hellish, cold existence is here in front of you.
I’ve focused on the women artists here because those were the paintings that appeal most. There are the usual male suspects, from Van Gogh to Reynolds to Degas, many of whom suffer from the casual indifference of over-exposure. By contrast, the women have burst out into the light, and this exhibition demonstrates they deserve to be there.
The exhibition continues until January 29. Entry: Â£8/Â£5.25
Other views: the Observer’s, The Telegraph’s and the Australian’s. (The show will be touring to Sydney next year.)