Day 28 – Catharina van Hemessen

Day 28 – Catharina van Hemessen, Self Portrait, 1548, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

I promised you something sunnier today, but it’s lovely and sunny outside anyway (well, it is up here), so I’ve put off that idea until tomorrow. And anyway, today is World Art Day! According to at least one website, ‘World Art Day is an international celebration of the fine arts, which was declared by the International Association of Art (IAA/AIAP), a partner of UNESCO, to promote awareness of creative activity worldwide. The first World Art Day was held on April 15th, 2012, a date chosen in honour of Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday’. So, Happy Birthday, Leonardo, but you get enough attention already. In honour of World Art Day, and to celebrate creative activity, particularly when you’re stuck at home, here is a self portrait: what else would artists do when self isolating?

It’s not just any self portrait, but the earliest known self portrait in which the artist shows themselves painting. That might not have been the first thing you noticed about it. I’m hoping you noticed the focussed attention of the artist looking towards us, right hand delicately holding the brush, while it is rested on a mahl stick to keep it steady. Later mahl sticks would have a padded end, so that they could be rested on the painting itself without scratching it. For the artist here, that isn’t a problem though, as the stick is rested on the frame. And yes, you might also have noticed that the painting is already framed, which was not unusual for panel paintings (this is oil on oak). Sometimes the panel and the frame were carved out of one plank, or in other cases, two opposite sides of the frame were part and parcel of the panel, with the other two were attached separately.  You might also have noticed that the painting has barely been started – so far only a face has been sketched in in the top left-hand corner – or that, back in the 16th Century, artists used rectangular palettes. However, I suspect that the first thing you noticed was that this is a woman painting.

It is no coincidence that the first self portrait to show an artist painting – at least, the first that we know of – was painted by a woman. Everyone knew men could paint. All the famous artists were men after all – or we used to think they were: see #POTD 14-17. Catharina van Hemessen was painting at a time before the first art schools – the academies – had been founded. In her day you became an artist by becoming an apprentice. Women couldn’t do this, because it meant going to live with a strange man when you were still, effectively, a child. Men, who were known to be artists, didn’t need to show that that is what they did. They had other concerns – being respectable, for example. So the vast majority of male self portraits show them dressed up, showing off their status and not their craft. Even Rembrandt, who painted more self portraits then anyone else before, and for several centuries after, only rarely showed himself holding a paint brush. X-ray analysis shows that, fairly often, he actually painted them out.

But women needed to let people know that they could do it – and what better way than by showing themselves in the act of painting. As a result there is a disproportionately large number of self portraits of artists painting which were executed by women. And Catharina was clearly proud of her work: a direct translation of the inscription on this example would be, ‘I Caterina de Hemessen painted me 1548’, and then, ‘Her age 20’. 

Catharina didn’t have to go and live with a strange man to become an artist, because she was already living with one. An artist, that is, not a strange man. Her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, had two daughters – but with no sons, who could he train to become his assistant, and take over the family business? Catharina was indeed trained by dad, and collaborated on a number of religious works. However, most of her own work seems to have been in the field of portraiture. Only 10 of her signed works survive, two of which are religious, and the rest, small-scale portraits. Other paintings have been attributed to her for stylistic reasons. There may well have been more religious works, but so much was destroyed in the waves of iconoclasm that passed through the Netherlands in the second half of the 16th century that it is hard to know. Her father’s work is full of bluster and posing, and is rather wonderful because of it. Hers is far more delicate, and really focuses on the details.

Look at the specificity with which she depicts the five paint brushes in her left hand, their shadows crossing her thumb, and on the way the paints have been worked across the palette, with the different shades of white and off -white she has blended to produce this painting. These tones can be seen in her headdress, the flesh tones and the white, chalk ground of the framed panel. She has also carefully observed the structure of the easel – the pegs which hold the shelf at the right level, and the unused holes beneath them, as well as the light and shade defining the form of the picture frame. And yet, she is only 20, she is still learning her craft.

The depiction of fashion would become one of her strong points. Above is a detail from her Portrait of a Woman in the National Gallery. The subtle patterning of the chemise is remarkable, as is the delicate lacing which ties it at the neck. The headdress, wired to hold it in place towards the back of the jaw, includes a semi-transparent veil, which reveals the slightly unruly wavy red hair. Painted just three years after the self portrait, the structure of this face is far more secure, the eyes deep within the sockets, shadowed bags beneath. Admittedly the unknown woman doesn’t look especially healthy – but you can’t fault the way she has been painted. A highlight along the ridge of the nose, and another at the rounded tip, define its form. The cheekbones, brow and slightly pouting mouth receive the same attention.

In  1554 Catharina married Christian de Morien, a musician – he was an organist in Antwerp Cathedral – and in 1556 the couple moved to Spain with her patron, Mary of Austria, a niece of Catherine of Aragon, and sister to Charles V. None of her paintings are dated later than 1554, though, so it is possible that she stopped painting when she got married – which is a tragedy, as she would only have got better.

I have always assumed that this self portrait shows her painting someone else – because her own face is in the top right, whereas the one she is working on is in the top left. But looking at it this morning I realised that this is exactly how she would have seen the self portrait when looking at it in a mirror. Rather than looking at us, she is, of course, intently looking at her own reflection. She has either adapted the composition to show herself painting with her right hand – or she could have been left-handed. For various technical reasons, most artists in self portraits appear to be looking over their right shoulders – but here she appears to be looking over her left. Which makes me think she was left handed. I tried explaining this once during a lecture, and failed to communicate why this should be so, until someone pointed out I could use the reflection in one of the windows in the lecture room to explain. I can’t do that here, so here’s a challenge: have a look in a mirror and work out why a right-handed artist would end up looking as if their right shoulder is closer to you. I will come back to this and explain what I mean at some point if it doesn’t make sense! 

If I’m right, and the painting in the painting is this painting, then not only was Catharina the first artist to paint herself painting, but she was also the first artist to paint herself painting herself. Happy World Art Day! 

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 28 – Catharina van Hemessen

  1. POTD28. Really interesting; completely new to me. You are right about the right shoulder! I have been reduced to drawing myself during lockdown. Initially I used a mirror then the selfie setting on the iPad – but that is a mirror too! All my efforts show the effect you mention, but tomorrow I am going to try and angle myself the other way and see how that works out! Looking forward to your lecture for IAHG if we are out by then.

    All good wishes

    Judith Nash


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