The history of art is filled with unforgettable self-portraits: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso. Painted or sculpted for posterity rather than for money, they are often among an artist’s finest works. But, although the walls of our museums have been filled with the images of such great men for generations, the faces of women artists have been mostly absent until recently.
Thanks to the work of a new generation of artists, activists, historians and curators, self-portraits of women artists have begun appearing—or sometimes reappearing—in recent years. Judith Leyster’s very animated, 1630 self-portrait of the artist at her easel hangs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s smiling young face (1782) graces the Uffizi in Florence. Mary Cassatt’s watercolor and gouache portrayal of herself (1878), one of only two known self-likenesses she did, is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frida Kalo’s memorable self-portraits now hang in museums around the world. Yet it’s still surprising to stumble on a woman’s likeness in a museum and realize that it is the face of an artist—a reminder of how far we still have to go.
What a delight then to find “Her Own Style: An Artist’s Eye with Judith Shea,” showcasing 30-some images of women artists, at New York City’s National Academy Museum. Shea, a well-known sculptor, selected the works from the National Academy’s holdings. For more than a century and a half (until the rules changed in 1994), member artists were required to donate portraits of themselves. Most, but not all, were self-portraits.
In this show, relatively obscure female artists and their more famous counterparts stare out with equal authority, challenging us to consider the vicissitudes of fame and ponder why some have sunk into the crevices of art history and others have become celebrities. As women, both groups represent a tiny minority in the art world, and for that reason alone these pieces hold a special fascination. What were the lives of these artists like? Against what odds did they manage to succeed? And what can their failures teach the generations to come? These works spark questions that may take years to answer. But they are all worth asking.
In a dashing self-portrait from 1915, the now little-known Mary Shepard Green Blumenschein poses in a dramatic feathered hat like a female Byron. Next to her image, a 1928 self-portrait by the more renowned and buttoned up Lillian Westcott Hale is more quietly arresting. Along with a few other portraits of late-19th and early-20th century women, they face-off across the first floor gallery against a wall of more recent works.
Among the more contemporary pieces, Louisa Matthiasdottir’s paired down “Self-Portrait in Overalls” (1985) and Emma Amos’s biting “Worksuit” (1994,) depicting herself with the naked body of white a man, offer more conceptual takes on the age-old questions about identity that every self-portraitist must ask.
Upstairs a large, oval gallery continues that inquiry with intriguing works that range from Philadelphia painter Cecilia Beaux’s 1894 depiction of herself, dressed in a high-necked, lilac-and-white striped blouse, looking as rosy as a debutante, to a moody 1954 study in greens of Marion Greenwood—a Federal Arts Project muralist—who depicts herself smoking a cigarette. Gertrude Horsford Fiske’s shadowy and monochromatic painting from 1922 obscures her features and presents a self-effacing Emily Dickenson type, while Ellen Emmet Rand’s 1927 vision of herself in blue work shirt and fedora could pass for a man’s self-portrait, until you read the nameplate.
In the last gallery, Shea’s own sculpted self-portrait, “Still Standing,” (2011) and her sculptural homages to artists Elizabeth Catlett and Louise Bourgeois (2012) bring us back to women in the three-dimensional world. Joyce Wahl Treiman’s large, light-filled painting “Schatzie and Me,” (1978) depicts the artist standing outside, dressed in a housecoat, while her dog rolls behind her in the dirt. It’s a reminder that a self-portrait doesn’t have to be serious or penetrating. It can be silly, irreverent, glib or whatever the artist wants.
While we know male artists have long used the self-portrait to explore their identities in a variety of directions, women’s many unpredictable visions of themselves still come as a surprise. And thank goodness for that. It is a joy to see so many different women artists’ self-portraits collected together under one roof.
“Her Own Style: An Artist’s Eye with Judith Shea” – until January 13, 2013
at: The National Academy Museum – 1083 Fifth Avenue, New York NY – 10128