The Trauma and Talent of Some of History’s Greatest Women Artists

By Celia Paul

Rebellion, Revolution, and Resilience
Five Hundred Years of Women’s Self Portraits
By Jennifer Higgie

“I’ve written quite a lot about art and artists and have cultivated a pretty deep envy of them,” the novelist Rachel Cusk recently told an interviewer for The Paris Review. “To operate outside of language — it seems the more lasting contribution. Yet painting is, has been, so masculine. The story of women in art is brutal.” “The Mirror and the Palette,” a new history of women artists’ self-portraits, proves her right about the brutality.

In this candid book by Jennifer Higgie, an Australian art critic, each painter endures some life-changing trauma. The stark message is that women need to suffer in order to make great paintings, and that trauma is the alchemical ingredient necessary for transforming talent into genius.

Higgie has structured her book in thematic, rather than strictly chronological, chapters. The first is “Easel” and the last “Naked.” She starts with Catharina van Hemessen, a Flemish artist who in 1548 painted her tiny self-portrait — widely believed to be the earliest surviving one by an artist of any gender seated at an easel — and ends with Alice Neel, the American painter, who died in 1984. Neel provides the book’s final quote: “You inherit the world. Somehow, you find a place for yourself.”

Is there a “female voice” in painting? Is there a painterly equivalent of Charlotte Brontë, Jean Rhys or Annie Ernaux? This book suggests there is and that it is defined by woundedness.

The worthy women artists who diligently persevered with their craft, from 1548 onward, sometimes gained reputations for themselves by brilliantly evoking the styles of the famous male artists of their time; the 17th-century Dutch painter Judith Leyster mimicked the style of her countryman Frans Hals perfectly, for example. In the sequence of the women artists presented here, the first to blaze out with an original female style was Frida Kahlo: Her paintings expressed an undeniable authenticity, a newly experienced awareness of the world, unlike anything else.

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