he museums of the world teem with women. Beautiful ones, viperous ones, young and old (well, mostly young), seated and recumbent. But we’re almost always in the frame, rather than on the labels.
Most people struggle to name more than one female artist before the 20th century. Artemisia Gentileschi (born in 1593) has entered the popular imagination, but only by virtue of the National Gallery exhibition last year – and that was her first ever show in Britain, and the first National Gallery blockbuster devoted to a historical female artist.
Yet, as Jennifer Higgie argues in this fine, haunting book, women have always made art, despite the discouragement lobbed in their path. Laws, religion, academic snobbery, public disapproval, having to get their husband’s supper on the table, museums not buying their work, historians refusing to acknowledge their work, fellow artists referring to their kind as “ridiculous” (Renoir) – none of it has prevented women from sitting at an easel, picking up a brush or a nub of chalk, and doing it anyway.
Higgie is an artist and critic, former editor of the contemporary art magazine Frieze. She also makes a podcast about women in art history – Bow Down – which was the seed for this book. Researching self-portraits, she was “staggered” at the “depth and variety of paintings made by women [who] have, until recently, been erased from the story of art”. You’d be forgiven, she says, “for thinking that women only started making art after World War II – and not many of them, at that”.
The Mirror and the Palette (the title nods to the meagre resources most women had at their disposal) is a redress, then, and vividly done – so much so that it rustles with the women’s presence. You feel them standing behind you, expectant.
The book is illustrative rather than encyclopedic, covering the period between 1548 and 1980 and the lives of 22 artists, selected by Higgie because they painted their own likeness, often many times over. Of the 700 portraits that the French painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) left behind when she died, for instance, 40 were of herself. The New Zealander Rita Angus (1908-1970) and the Mexican Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), meanwhile, clocked up 55.