Self-portrait with mahl stick

We interrupt the sabbatical work for a combination of art, feminism, and technology.

It’s this self-portrait by Catherina van Hemessen, whom I had not heard of till today (by way of a reference from a community college art history class):

Catharina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait (1548)

In that context, I was told that it’s the first self-portrait by a female artist. But on the Wikipedia page about her, it claims it may be the first self-portrait of anyone at work at an easel, and references a book by Frances Borzello. So I went off looking for her. Yup, she’s qualified and literally wrote the book on female painters and their self-portraits.

So I looked at the book with Amazon’s search. There are images of women painting their self-portraits in Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (c. 1402-4) on page 20 of the book. Borzello also claims that an illustrator named Claricia drew herself into the letter Q in medieval manuscripts. What Borzello actually says, on page 40, is that Hemessen’s “has been claimed as the first self-portrait showing an artist of either sex at work at the easel”.

Oh, ok, then. Not quite as grand as the first self-portrait ever, of man or women, and limited by “at work at the easel”. When did easels start? And what’s that rod in her hand?

It’s a mahl stick, still used to keep the painter’s hand steady and prevent smudging. I found out about it here (well, I’m not an artist, obviously).

And, according to this Victorian book, easels have been around since at least Roman times.

Under what circumstances is a story “untold”? If I’ve never heard of either van Hemessen or Claricia, that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t there. Over and again, things that are forgotten re-emerge. The current focus on feminist history and heritage is a case in point. While I am not in favor of anything that separates humans from each other, or sets them in opposition, the histories of particular groups of people do tend to generate the re-emergence of essential knowledge. It is this re-emergence, particularly in the Internet Age, that makes it possible to find information, and more importantly, other sources of information, like Borzello’s book. And sites about mahl sticks.

2 comments to Self-portrait with mahl stick

  • Wow, mahl sticks!

    Beyond a curiosity of the meaning of her seemingly blank expression, I’m curious about the positioning it took to paint a selfie portrait. It’s like a selfie where we see the camera?

    I’d guess that she had a mirror set up, but why not behind the canvas (oh yes to show her at work?). Mirrors were around a long time https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror and apparently Venice was the hub for manufacturing, but were they ordinary things in Catharina’s time? And does this mean her actual position was flipped 180°? What compelled her to do self portrait?

    Thanks for sharing this, so many points to wonder about.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I’m not seeing a blank expression – to me it looks like she’s concentrating, which would be her look in the mirror. What’s interesting about the mirror is it means the picture she’s creating in the painting would look like she really looks because it would be double-flipped.

      I figure that if, in 1497, Florentines brought out their mirrors to be burned in Savanarola’s bonfires of the vanities, they must have been common in wealthier households. They were expensive items for a long time, not mass-produced until the mid-19th century, but they might have been considered de rigueur for artists.

      Borzello’s book suggests that artists painted self-portraits for many reasons, including showing off their skill, declaring their status among artists, copying the masters, or being witty in a way one couldn’t in other work (pp. 17-18). She also notes that women tended to avoid the “operatic” style of male self-portraits, including maternal ideas but also uniquely female portrayals as in my favorite, by Artemesia Gentileschi.

      null

2 comments to Self-portrait with mahl stick

  • Wow, mahl sticks!

    Beyond a curiosity of the meaning of her seemingly blank expression, I’m curious about the positioning it took to paint a selfie portrait. It’s like a selfie where we see the camera?

    I’d guess that she had a mirror set up, but why not behind the canvas (oh yes to show her at work?). Mirrors were around a long time https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror and apparently Venice was the hub for manufacturing, but were they ordinary things in Catharina’s time? And does this mean her actual position was flipped 180°? What compelled her to do self portrait?

    Thanks for sharing this, so many points to wonder about.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I’m not seeing a blank expression – to me it looks like she’s concentrating, which would be her look in the mirror. What’s interesting about the mirror is it means the picture she’s creating in the painting would look like she really looks because it would be double-flipped.

      I figure that if, in 1497, Florentines brought out their mirrors to be burned in Savanarola’s bonfires of the vanities, they must have been common in wealthier households. They were expensive items for a long time, not mass-produced until the mid-19th century, but they might have been considered de rigueur for artists.

      Borzello’s book suggests that artists painted self-portraits for many reasons, including showing off their skill, declaring their status among artists, copying the masters, or being witty in a way one couldn’t in other work (pp. 17-18). She also notes that women tended to avoid the “operatic” style of male self-portraits, including maternal ideas but also uniquely female portrayals as in my favorite, by Artemesia Gentileschi.

      null