First published in 1998 Frances Borzello’s “Seeing Ourselves Women’s Self Portraits” has never been out of print. And reading it I know why. It is not only very well written, it is a unique story of the history of women’s self portraiture which is demonstrated with 200 pictures as well as extensive notes and a bibliography.
Frances not only takes us through the history of self portraiture from the C16th and shows that it is a genre in its own right, but also that through looking at the portraits we can understand the lives of the individual women and what it meant to be a woman artist in a man’s world.
Self portraits are popular with all artists but Frances believes, and shows in this fascinating book, that women’s self portraits are quite different from that of their male equivalents. She asks the question; why have you chosen to look the way you do in your self portrait?
Often they were reflecting the struggles they had to go through to become an artist. It was not until the second half of the C19 that art schools allowed women to enrol.
The story begins in the C16C when women artists appear in art histories. One of my favourite images in the book is this chalk sketch by Sofonisba Anguissola from 1545 when she was 13 years old. She grins out at us and points to her elderly companion who is looking at a book she is holding.
She was one of the lucky women of that era as she was able, with her sister, to go and work with artist Bernardino Campi to learn the principles of painting. She had a long and successful career.
By the C19th not only are women pushing through the doors of art schools but they are asserting themselves as artists in their own right in their self portraits But they still had to promote an image of respectability alongside their artistic ability. Frances gives the example of successful French artist Rosa Bonheur (see below) who ensured that she was never interviewed in the male clothes which she wore to paint in.
In the C20th women artists no longer had to hide behind conventional views about their sex. As Frances comments; “As they set up their easels next to the men in the art classes, they began to feel – or at least some of them did – that they could put their concerns, their way of seeing things into their paintings without the disguise and defences of previous centuries.”
It was still not easy for many women as they challenged the views of the men they were close to and the men who were in positions of power in the art world.
Frances charts the highs and lows of some fascinating women artists, many of them unknown to me, coupled with fabulous examples of their work. In this book I came across the American artist and former communist Alice Neel. Her life spanned the C20 and in her use of portraiture she reflected her own activity in politics including the 1970s and the women’s movement.
In 1980, at the age of 80 she was confident enough to paint herself nude as an artist. I wanted to know more about her and found this documentary online https://www.aliceneelfilm.com/watch
Reading this book is inspiring and is a reminder of how women artists in the past are role models for women today. As Frances reminds us:
“Expected to fit in with whatever contemporary notions of femininity held sway, they nonetheless managed to come up with striking images that boasted their talent, spoke of their beliefs and displayed their grasp of the standards of the day.”
Buy the book from women’s cooperative News from Nowhere here