Living, Breathing Expressions of Self: On Jennifer Higgie’s “The Mirror and the Palette”

January 18, 2022   •   By Paris A. Spies-Gans

The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution, and Resilience: Five Hundred Years of Women’s Self Portraits

Jennifer Higgie

OVER THE COURSE of two tortured nights in 1908, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, sequestered in a Parisian hotel room, penned 271 lines in memory of his longtime friend, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), who had died of complications from childbirth the previous year. “But mourning,” he wrote,

is not enough. I must accuse:
oh not the man who withdrew you from yourself
(I cannot find him; he looks like everyone),
but in this one man, I accuse: all men.

Rilke’s reproachful verse appears near the end of Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution, and Resilience: Five Hundred Years of Women’s Self Portraits, a sweeping narrative of the artistic opportunities women have and have not been able to grasp throughout recent Western history. Higgie’s focus is on an eclectic series of women who quite literally turned to the mirror — artists who reflected on their evolving place in their societies by painting their own images. To a large extent, Rilke’s verse encapsulates Higgie’s intricate endeavor, the most recent exercise in efforts to rewrite the history of women in a way that puts high value on their creative undertakings within deeply patriarchal worlds. Like many of these works, however, Higgie toes an unresolved line: she takes up the thorny challenge of exhuming a neglected history of female artistry, while struggling to avoid reinforcing the assumption that the artist is a male figure by default.

The Mirror and the Palette is clearly a labor of love, and its timing is apt. As a critic and former editor for the London-based contemporary arts magazine frieze, Higgie has built a prominent presence as a champion of — and expert on — female-identifying artists. In the process, she has contributed to a recent flourishing of public interest in women artists, as manifested in a plethora of museum exhibitions, television documentaries, podcasts, panels, and popular and academic books. From 2019 to 2020, Higgie herself hosted a 17-episode podcast on female artists, entitled Bow Down; her Instagram, where she regularly posts about women’s self-portraits, has nearly 50,000 followers.

Yet Higgie shies away from these more popular associations in her book, which proceeds thematically from the 15th century through to the 20th. While evocative, the chapters’ conceptual titles (“Easel,” “Smile,” “Allegory,” “Solitude,” “Naked”) fall far short of suggesting the complexities and range of the stories that follow. For Higgie’s stated goal is “not simply” to present “a selection of paintings and artists[,] but the story of the societies that produced them” — a tall order for a tome that revolves around the self-portraits of 23 women across geographic and temporal spheres, from the Flemish Catharina van Hemessen (1528–c.1587) to the American Alice Neel (1900–1984). As the Rilke quotation above suggests, Higgie establishes her book from the outset as a narrative of duality and exclusion, focusing on both the gendered barriers her subjects faced in their own times and their highly consequential exclusion from written histories ever since.

At the same time, she makes sure to employ as expansive a definition of “woman” as possible, implicitly acknowledging and eluding the TERF wars currently raging in the United Kingdom. She embraces her subjects’ differences, and writes that these very distinctions “joyfully […] render[] the idea of a singular feminine sensibility obsolete.” Her self-portraitists, she happily shares, “were communists and socialists, monarchists and conservatives.” Some were “employed by kings and queens as propagandists,” while others “created their masterpieces as acts of political rebellion in order to stimulate social change”; “[s]ome led lives of monogamous, heterosexual virtue, whereas others had numerous sexual partners, irrespective of gender.” Only one thing, she writes, “absolutely links” her subjects: “[T]heir shared desire to try to make sense of the world with a paintbrush.”

As the pages unfold, a remarkable story of women’s self-possession and creativity comes to light. Higgie begins broadly, with a discussion of the early commodification of mirrors — objects that were so valuable in the 17th century that the French comtesse de Fiesque traded a swath of land for a mirror of Venetian make. Visual evidence suggests that, by using these luxury items, European women may have painted self-portraits from the looking glass before men did: an image of Marcia Painting her Self-Portrait from a mirror in a 1401 French edition of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women, 1361–’62) appeared 32 years before Jan Van Eyck’s oil on oak Portrait of a Man (1433), which has long been considered the earliest painted self-portrait in the Western tradition.

It is this visual act that unites Higgie’s artists, as well as the many firsts it catalyzed. In Antwerp in 1548, 20-year-old van Hemessen placed oil and pigment on a small oak panel and produced the first known self-portrait of a painter, female or male, working at an easel. Seven years later, the 23-year-old Italian Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532–1625) painted her sisters playing chess — the first known painting of Italian daily life, and the first to take an artist’s family as its main subject. Anguissola herself did not appear around the chess board, yet by producing at least 19 images of herself (12 of which survive), she was, we learn, “the most prolific self-portraitist between Dürer and Rembrandt,” the two artists most canonically recognized for their lifelong return to the genre. Chapters and several eras later, we meet Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998), whose 1974 painting Ubi Girl from Tai Region was the “first work by an African American artist to be acquired by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.”

Again and again, century after century, Higgie’s subjects depicted themselves; their activity spread from Europe to Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and the United States (a geographical scope that is surely informed in part by Higgie’s Australian roots). The Finnish Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) left behind 36 self-portraits, dying with her easel beside her bed; the Mexican Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and the New Zealander Rita Angus (1908–1970) each painted themselves at least 55 times. One of these efforts, Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital (1932), is a devastating document of a miscarriage the artist experienced in Detroit, where she had traveled with her husband, Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to paint a massive series of socialist-inspired murals for the Detroit Institute of Arts. Of his wife’s work, Rivera later wrote, “Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas.”

Higgie’s focus expands beyond the self-portrait as she enters modern times, increasingly indulging in the riveting personal details of these artists’ lives, women who often overlapped in experiences if not in time or place. Many, like Kahlo, endured traumas of childbirth; many cut themselves off from their families; many were subjected to highly gendered invectives from critics and peers; many traveled, especially to Paris; many acquired prominent patrons; a surprising number worked in the circles of Auguste Rodin; and many had unhappy partnerships or marriages. In a fury, Neel’s lover Kenneth Doolittle destroyed several of her paintings; so did André Utter, the second husband of French model-turned-painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938). Higgie’s stories are captivating, and her visual descriptions are magnificent; disappointingly, only a fraction of the images discussed make it into the color insert.

Given the vibrancy of historical detail and the author’s clear interest in storytelling, why has Higgie used self-portraiture as her central conceit, especially when casting such a wide chronological net? Beyond (and predating) our current cultural obsession with such images, the act of self-depiction has long been a favorite lens for academic and mainstream art-historical work; after all, humans have been enthralled by representations of the self for centuries. In 1500, the pioneering German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer fanned the flames of the nascent genre by painting himself in a frontal pose in the guise of Christ, thereby claiming status as a painter of quasi-miraculous skill. Artists have since turned to mirrors to assist their acts of self-fashioning — haunting maskings and raw unmaskings, flashes of exposed vulnerability, and moments of self-conscious dissimulation. As a result, there exists an extensive literature on the concept and practice of portraying one’s own features, scholarship that is particularly rich for the early modern period, the ostensible moment of the genre’s birth. And while male artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, and Max Beckmann have received the most attention, women have gradually entered the conversation. Indeed, one of the perennially best-selling books on women artists has Higgie’s exact focus: Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, which has remained in print since its initial publication in 1998 (it was released in a revised edition by Thames & Hudson in 2016). Higgie adds biographical depth to Borzello’s wide-ranging analysis, spending more time on her (smaller number of) subjects’ life stories, emphasizing the experiences that infused and influenced their art. Taken all together, this work has shown self-portraits to be living, breathing expressions of self, meaningful opportunities for artists to shape themselves as creators in unique and often idiosyncratic ways.

By focusing on self-portraiture — or, rather, by using it as her organizing principle — Higgie irrefutably demonstrates that her subjects’ paintings (she does not focus on other media) deserve a prominent place within the history of the genre. In her treatment, their struggles and successes come to teach us as much about the past as they do about our own practices and self-conceptions today. At the same time, her rationale for this focus, which seems to stem from women’s supreme invisibility in the work of historians, is more tenuous. “Given their invisibility,” she explains, “the act of female self-portraiture — a woman declaring that her existence is something worth recording — is one of radical defiance: ‘Look at me,’ she is saying, ‘I exist. I have something to say.’” Such rendering invisible is of course an important narrative to counter, and Higgie’s artists have certainly been buried by centuries of historical writing. (“History is a story told in words,” she stresses early on; “if women aren’t mentioned in books, they may as well have never existed.”) But these women were rarely unseen during their own eras. Even though they all encountered numerous hurdles to artistic success — sociopolitical constraints and institutional restrictions that have dominated analyses of most women’s works — they nevertheless managed to be recognized by the artists, institutions, and patrons we have long celebrated as the leaders of their times. As such, their self-portraits are more than interesting enough to be studied on their own terms. We do not scrutinize Dürer’s self-portraits through the lens of radical defiance stemming from a sense of invisibility, so why do we often insist on such critical relegations for women? An inherent risk in this approach lies in its potential to be destructively double-edged — both empowering and, ultimately, dismissive.

Such tensions between past realities, on the one hand, and the ways in which women have been written into and out of history, on the other, are endemic to the study of women in the past. They have, moreover, led to several false tropes that The Mirror and the Palette embraces. These include Higgie’s repeated assertion that, until the late 19th century, women artists could not learn how to depict the nude and were almost necessarily the wives or daughters of artists, a line of argument that has been conventional wisdom since Linda Nochlin’s classic and still-influential 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Art historians, however, have increasingly recognized that this was not exactly the case — most recently, in work by Babette Bohn, two of whose earlier articles are cited by Higgie, as well as in pieces by Mary Vidal, Séverine Sofio, and others, whose publications are not referenced. Higgie herself even notes several “exceptions” to this rule, including the Italians Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757), who did not come from an artistic family, and Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), who painted mythological scenes with nude figures. Yet these women are left to serve as exceptions rather than clues to a different story.

In addition to perpetuating these timeworn tropes, the book also contains some notable factual errors. For instance, Higgie’s account of 18th-century France is misleading on several basic details, including the very frequency of the Louvre Salon, the nation’s most prestigious show. It is also improbable that the painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) was “a close friend” of the French queen Marie Antoinette, despite being her favorite portraitist; and Vigée Le Brun’s peer painter, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803), was not her “chief rival.” The latter error is particularly serious, because the impression that women painters were often antagonists has adversely tinged numerous analyses of their lives and work. Signally, the notion that Vigée Le Brun and Labille-Guiard were adversaries was first voiced by critics at the time, in an effort to create a rivalry and dismiss these two female painters who were rapidly rising in prominence. It was a slur that, as far as we know, was not embraced by either artist.

Such inaccuracies are surely owed to the fact that Higgie is not a specialist in the 18th century, and I am able to note them because I am. Still, they reflect a larger pattern: at times it seems that Higgie has relied on select written sources rather than reading them critically, questioning their biases, or trusting her own eye. In another example, she describes the famously marginalized portraits of Mary Moser (1744–1819) and Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) in Johan Zoffany’s The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–’72) as “monochrome” — a description that later appears in a secondary source she quotes — when, in fact, they are quite clearly colored. Indeed, throughout the book, even as she questions the societal pressures these women faced, Higgie does not challenge or complicate her source materials, historical or contemporary.

Occasionally, this lenient engagement leads to dubious conclusions on significant issues, such as Higgie’s overreaching claim that Vigée Le Brun, with the portrait of the queen “en chemise” that she submitted to the 1783 Louvre Salon, “[u]nwittingly […] boosted the slave trade.” While Marie Antoinette’s predilection for muslin dresses, a trend that was directly imported from England, indisputably sparked a craze for slave-cultivated cotton — one that is vital to note and foreground — this interest predated and outlasted her favorite painter. I do not write this to exonerate Vigée Le Brun, who was certainly as complicit in the slave trade as any other high-profile woman of fashion at the time. Nevertheless, the portrait Higgie discusses and indicts hung at the Salon only briefly; its informal depiction of the queen caused an immediate scandal, and the canvas was soon replaced by another, more stately portrait. The fateful lessons of this story are richer (and more precise) for their historical complexities.

The study of women artists is currently witnessing a rebirth, and the tensions and challenges evident in Higgie’s book will surely continue to unfold. Although my concerns are salient, they should not take away from the thought-provoking and broadly informative nature of Higgie’s accessibly written work, which is a welcome addition to a growing canon. Rather, it is imperative to stress historical accuracy precisely because, as Higgie knows more than anyone, these women’s remarkable stories have been so unjustly neglected for so long. It is enormously difficult to distill 600 years of history into a few hundred pages, but the very importance of the project itself demands an exacting degree of scrupulousness. The ongoing effort to bring women artists into critical study and popular awareness requires a willingness to reassess and, in many cases, eschew the tropes that have led them to be dismissed. For these, too, pervade the practices of art history that Higgie so powerfully takes to task.

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Paris A. Spies-Gans is a historian of gender and art. She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.