The Female Self-Portrait

 In MOA Features

Guest Post by MOA Marketing Intern, Megan Mayfield

While self-portraits are common in almost every artist’s studio and have been for centuries, there is a unique self-portrait trend that began in the 15th century among women artists. These female artists, in a field surrounded by men, created self-portraits of themselves in the act of painting. This subject became an important theme for many female artists and a way to assert that women artists of the time were just as talented and serious about their art as their male counterparts.

In the 15th century, women artists were usually either trained by male family members who owned studios or they were self-taught. Women were not allowed in the art academies and therefore their art usually didn’t depict popular themes such as portraiture. When a woman learned the techniques to create the type of art that was popular, she was still in competition with male artists. Because of this, the self-portrait became widely adopted among female artists, and the particular type of self-portrait became that of the artist painting herself in the act of painting.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura),” c.1638, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 75.2 cm. Royal Collection Trust.

There are many examples of this unique trend of self-portraiture. In Catharina van Hemessen’s self-portrait, she included her contact information, so others could easily give her commissions to complete. Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as the allegory of painting. Sofonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster showed themselves sitting in front of completely finished works. All of these different portraits legitimized these women in a male profession and it worked well to bring attention to themselves. The movement has inspired artists from the 15th century to current times as women find new and creative ways to make themselves heard and seen in the art world.


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