Book Review: “The Mirror and the Palette” — Women’s Self-Portraits in Courage
By Kathleen Stone
By skillfully balancing the historical and the imaginative, The Mirror and the Palette is not only a delight to read, but inspirational.
The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution, and Resilience: Five Hundred Years of Women’s Self Portraits by Jennifer Higgie. Pegasus Books, 336 pages, $27.95.
To read The Mirror and the Palette is to be reminded why art history is such a compelling subject. At its best, the field understands art’s place in the world by blending explorations of political and cultural history, religion and mythology, geography and language. Then there is the examination of the art itself, which offers opportunities for one-on-one communion with great works. In lively prose, author Jennifer Higgie touches on all of these bases, taking us through a varied terrain while advancing her illuminating thesis: women have always created self-portraits — regardless of whether the academies and exhibitions that validated the “real” stuff (aka men’s art) — barred the doors.
As long ago as ancient Rome, according to Pliny the Elder, Iaia of Cyzicus used a rudimentary mirror to portray herself. Thereafter, through the medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and modern periods, women continued to work in the same vein. It was a way of coming to terms with who they were, even though others refused to pay attention. Higgie ends her historical survey with Alice Neel. While Iaia’s self-portrait no longer exists, it is highly doubtful that she displayed herself as Neel did — eighty years old, naked, with sagging breasts and bulging belly. How a woman chooses to portray herself depends partly on the prevailing view, at any given moment, of what art is supposed to be and do. It is also the result of her private introspection.
Higgie covers close to thirty artists over a five hundred year span. They are mostly European, but also from the Americas, India, New Zealand and Australia. (Higgie herself is Australian.) Most are not well-known today, even though some were top-selling artists during their lifetimes. One of the historian’s aims to lift them out of obscurity by burnishing their reputations for today’s audience. The following examples suggest the breadth of her mission.
Sofonisba Anguissola was once at the top of her game, but she eventually nearly vanished from the historical record. She was born into an aristocratic but poor Italian family sometime around 1531. Her parents encouraged her to learn the arts and, in an extremely rare step, arranged for her to apprentice with an established artist. Seldom did an unmarried young woman live apart from her family, and rarely did a male artist accept a female pupil. Most often, when a girl was given an education, it was so that she could converse knowledgeably with men, almost never so that she could pursue a calling in art or any other field. Sofonisba, though, was gifted. That, and the fact that her art might generate income for her impoverished family, motivated her parents to seek training for her. The historical record suggests that her father even arranged for her to meet Michelangelo in Rome, for some informal mentoring. With her father acting as art dealer, she became a successful artist. Even Vasari noticed her, writing that the figures in one of her paintings “appear to be breathing and absolutely alive.”
When she was twenty-six, Sofonisba traveled to Spain to attend the marriage of King Philip II to Isabel de Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medici. Sofonisba drew close to the young queen and stayed at court for fourteen years. Through numerous romantic liaisons and two marriages she continued painting, until her eyesight failed late in life. The young Anthony van Dyck painted her portrait when she was in her nineties and, according to his journal entry, she was lively and sharp. She gave him excellent advice on how to paint.
Even more interesting is a portrait Sofonisba completed of herself when she was in her twenties. She shows her teacher, Bernardo Campi, painting her portrait. The task seems to worry him, whereas she appears serene and confident. She merits having her portrait painted, she seems to say, even if she contrived the event. The portrait, though, was misattributed for years. Only recently have scholars agreed this work — both ironic and deadly serious — is Sofonisba’s.
Not every woman catapulted to such a high level of eminence. Three hundred years after Sofonisba’s birth, Marie Bashkirtseff was born in Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. She died of tuberculosis a month shy of her twenty-sixth birthday. But even during her short life, she managed to earn renown as both an artist and a writer. In one self-portrait, she looks directly at the viewer, her expression laced with melancholy; she seems to know life is precarious. In her journals, melancholy was interwoven with frustration. “Had I had a sensible education I should be very remarkable. I taught myself everything,” she wrote. “As a man, I should have conquered Europe.” She chafed against the convention that a young woman must be chaperoned in public. She longed to sit in the Tuileries and be alone with her thoughts. She pined for “the freedom without which one cannot become a real artist. Do you imagine that I get much good from what I see, chaperoned as I am, and when, in order to go to the Louvre, I must wait for my carriage, my lady companion and family?” After Marie’s death, her mother had her journals published, in accordance with her wish, and these earned the admiration of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, playwright George Bernard Shaw and writers Katherine Mansfield and Anais Nin.
Another artist Higgie writes about is Judith Leyster, born in the early seventeenth century, into the golden age of Dutch art. Little is known about her early life, other than that her father was a brewer and moved the family among several Dutch cities. The extent of her artistic training is also obscure, although it is believed that she met other Dutch artists who had studied Caravaggio’s work in Italy. It is certain that she was familiar with the work of Franz Hals; their open brushwork and genre studies are similar. In fact, she probably knew him personally. Court records document that she brought a lawsuit against him, which she won, after one of her students left her workshop for his.
Those familiar with Hals might immediately think of him when looking at Judith’s self-portrait. She would be at home in one of the merry tavern scenes he and his followers painted. But Higgie argues that this picture is anything but conventional. Judith shows herself as laughing, and that was a major breach of social convention. Women, at least those of good morals, were supposed to be serious. Even a smile could indicate deviance from the virginal model. Judith’s mirth is a challenge to convention, an expression of confidence that we would expect of a woman bold enough to sue the older, better known Hals. Still, she did not escape the boundaries of conventional limitations. As a young artist, she was prolific but, once she married, it seems that she painted very little. Most likely she ran the business side of her husband’s workshop (he was also an artist), and took care of the children, so there was little time left for her own art.
The deprivations Marie Bashkirtseff wrote about — lack of education, lack of autonomy — and the household burdens Judith Leyster shouldered applied to women across all lines of endeavor. But Higgie reminds us that, for artists, such barriers were strengthened by women’s exclusion, until comparatively recently, from the life drawing classes that were the backbone of artistic training. Excluded, that is, unless they were modeling, often nude, for male art students. Women were also mostly excluded from the official salons, exhibitions, and academies that were the lifeblood of European artistic life. As a result, women looked to family members to be subjects of their paintings and, just as often, to themselves.
For an artist like Rita Angus, the challenge of being a female artist was complicated by geography. Born in New Zealand in 1908, she grew up amid a lush landscape where she and other art students believed European art was to be emulated. They are only dimly aware of the artistic revolution then under way. Also, as a descendant of Scottish settlers, she was haunted by the feeling — shared by others who, like she, were not Maori — that she was not really a New Zealander. Her response to the question of identity was to study Asian art and philosophy, along with Freud and Jung, and paint what she saw around her. Her intellectual self-interrogation culminated in a 1951 self-portrait in which she portrays herself as a goddess figure, surrounded by both Christian iconography and Pacific symbols. She appears mixed race, with dark skin and blond hair, set against a bold, sun-drenched landscape. According to her art dealer, the idealistic image was an expression of the hope, shared by many New Zealanders, of a diverse state “where the two races would all end up somehow half Pakeha and half Polynesian.” (Pakeha is a Maori term for a New Zealander of European descent.) Because art from Australasia is only infrequently seen in the United States, Higgie’s chapters on two Australian artists, Nora Heysen and Margaret Preston, along with the section on New Zealander Rita Angus, are particularly enlightening.
Throughout the book, Higgie persuasively emphasizes self-portraiture as a mode of self-expression. She studies individual works closely and captures the mood and motivation behind each. Sometimes her interpretation is idiosyncratic; another viewer could read something very different into the picture. Her writing is at its most emotionally evocative, even lyrical, when she imagines multitudes of women in their tiny attics and dimly lit studios, looking at themselves and deciding how they want to be remembered. She reflects the feelings of countless women, known and unknown, in a passage such as this: “She doesn’t just paint; she is the embodiment of painting. The colour of her dress, the pendant she wears, what she holds in her hand: all of it is significant. Her paintings tell us something not only about the shape of her face or how she comported herself, but also about when and where she lived and what she was permitted – or not – to do. Every element in every one of her pictures is a fragment of a larger story; they are at once self-portraits and symbolic maps.” By skillfully balancing the historical and the imaginative, The Mirror and the Palette is not only a delight to read, but inspirational.
Kathleen Stone is a writer based in Boston. She holds graduate degrees from the Bennington Writing Seminars and Boston University School of Law. They Called Us Girls, her collective biography of women with unconventional ambition in the mid-twentieth century, will be published by Cynren Press in March 2022. You can find out more and sign up for a monthly newsletter about intriguing women in history at her website, www.kathleencstone.com.