The Mirror and the Palette

Jennifer Higgie offers a cross section of women artists spanning five hundred years of Western art history, interpreting self-portraits as “symbolic maps” that lead us towards a deeper understanding of art history and women’s experience of making art.

“She looks at herself, again and again. She’s in London or Paris or Helsinki or Sydney. She’s in a village by the sea or a hamlet in the mountains, in a room, a studio, a flat, a place, however small, she can call her own. She’s a mother, she’s childless, she’s straight, she’s queer, in a relationship or relationships, happily celibate or filled with a longing for something or someone just out of reach.” This is where art critic Jennifer Higgie steps off in her latest book, The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits, which offers insight into the lives and creativity of women artists spanning five hundred years.

But who is “she”?

Sofonisba Anguissola fought against the expectations of her time and became one of the most famous European artists of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Nora Heysen was the first woman to be awarded the Archibald Prize, but later hovered between recognition and obscurity, haunted by the long shadow cast by her famous father. Frida Kahlo suffered debilitating injuries after a bus crash in 1925 and famously painted her reality again and again, her work described by André Breton as a “ribbon around a bomb.” 

And there are so many others; women who made art and reflected the world they lived in, despite their critical neglect across many of the core narratives of art history, and their personal experiences of discrimination and trauma. 

To write a five-hundred-year account is an ambitious task, and Higgie attempts to trim its expanse carefully, concentrating on self-portraits in the Western tradition. As broad accounts of art history often do, it leaves you wanting more. But this is something Higgie recognises. As she writes herself, “I’ve hardly touched upon it.” 

What Higgie does touch on, however, is stimulating and alert to the political, cultural, and artistic histories of our time, as well as sweeping biographical details of the artists. Accounts of particular artists’ lives, from the aforementioned Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625) to Alice Neel (1900–1984), Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907) to Margaret Preston (1875–1963), Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) to Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998), among others, deepen the details. It is a book that spans continents and movements of art history with an eye firmly on the nuances of gender (and occasionally, importantly, race) that shaped women’s access to the arts as well as the reception of their work. 

As Higgie argues in The Mirror and the Palette, it has never been a case that women haven’t made art, but that society has often failed to see and understand our work and ambitions. “When I began researching self-portraits, despite being all too aware of the reality of gender exclusion, I was staggered by the sheer depth and variety of paintings made by women over the past five centuries who, it is fair to say, have, until recently, been erased from the story of art,” she writes. 

As such, The Mirror and the Palette is part of a feminist tradition of art criticism that seeks to rewrite our understanding of art history from the perspective of artists who have been overlooked, undermined, or erased due to their gender. It’s a broad-strokes interpretation of the cultural contribution of women artists and brings to mind Linda Nochlin’s trailblazing essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” 1971, as well as other books that delve more deeply into the biographical details of individual artists, such as Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch, 1999. Higgie herself has written extensively on the arts; she was previously editor-at-large of frieze magazine and is the presenter of Bow Down, a podcast exploring women in art history. Currently, she is writing a forthcoming book on the influence of spiritualism in women’s creative work, titled The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art, and the Spirit World.

The self-portrait, as the focus of Higgie’s research for the Mirror and the Palette, puts the representation of these artists into their own hands. This is a where the book gets its energy. We come to understand each artist’s work and their position in the cultural milieu of the time through paintings of themselves. “Every element in every one of her pictures is a fragment of a larger story; they are at once self-portraits and symbolic maps. They can be read on so many levels . . . A self-portrait isn’t simply a rendering of an artist’s external appearance: it’s also an evocation of who she is and the times she lives in, how she sees herself and what she understands about the world,” Higgie explains. 

Higgie begins in the early sixteenth century, the time when mirrors were invented and women were excluded from academies of art, not to mention life classes. Self-portraits are rebellious in this context. Accessible, perhaps, in a way that life models weren’t. But what does the mirror reflect when you’re told one thing about your body your entire life, but feel something to be different? The self-portrait becomes a window into identity and place. “To express your sense of place in the world is, it would seem, an endless act of translation,” Higgie writes.

This is a continuing thread throughout the book as it hurtles towards the post–World War II twentieth century, tackling along the way colonial and post-colonial circumstances and emerging national consciousness in America, India, New Zealand, and Australia within the context of Western art history. As I said earlier, it is ambitious. At times, it feels the only things these women have in common is their gender and the fact they painted. In the effort to encompass so much breadth, specificity is somewhat diminished, and Higgie often raises more questions than she answers. Still, it is a rich cross section and important reminder that there’s still more work to be done to recognise the diversity of women’s art across centuries.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 61, 2022.

The Mirror and the Palette Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits
Jennifer Higgie
RRP $24.99 AUD

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