Dear friends and readers,
I’ve chosen for my second woman artist portrait Caterina van Hemeseen (1527/8 to 1581 or after 1587) because she’s one of the earliest named women artists in Europe (the source books and surveys and collections often begin with her, or include her early on among early modern women. She is also not as favored as Sofonisba and Lucia Anguissola (1536-1625, 1536-65) or the rare (glorious, as in her bowl of peaches) still life painter for the era, Fede Glizia (1578-13). Germaine Greer (Obstacle Race, 109-10, 167, 253) finds Van Hemessen’s work “archaic” with a “carefully restricted range of feeling.” Greer mentions as a parallel in the early 20th century the small, diffident, intense paintings compared to the large originality and variety of her brother Augustus. I disagree, and feel people are not sufficiently taking into account the repressive religious culture of the low countries and Germany in general into account. Any rate I am impressed by Caterina Van Hemessen’s portraits, find them memorable, arresting, appealing.
The above 1551 “Portrait of a Lady” is rightly her most often reproduced work, known as surely by her and my favorite. What is most often described is her attention to realistic detail, her ability to convey textures of clothing, and the things her sitters are seen with: a small lapdog (as in the above), musical instruments played, herself painting. In the above painting the dog’s collar has bells; the woman wears a beautiful lace blouse, open collar to emphasize her shoulders, red velvet sleeves, embroidered skirt. What I’d like to call attention to (which we see above) is the expression on their faces. That is what is arresting. The sad eagerness of their eyes, the worn nature of their lived in skin, their nervous hands. The woman above holds the chain around her waist and fingers a bunched up handkerchief or silk flower. Again and again it is this acuity of vulnerable feeling and personal small movements in their hands that holds viewers — at any rate, holds me.
Here is another “Portrait of a Lady” about which little is known but what we see.
Van Hemessen is capable of photographic realism from a face. Note how she is twisting her ring. Her neck-cloth is individual; the slit opening and area between it and her bodice, the reddish necklace just glimpsed are meant to draw us in, to attract in a modest way sexually. Her sleeves, headdress and neck cloth all have blue highlights, polka-dots on her lace, the ring and jewelry below is red like the necklace. All the women wear corsets; hers is either especially tight or Van Hemessen has given her an artificially slender waist. I wonder what she is thinking.
About ten portraits are signed by Van Hemessen, three are presumably of her. She paints her name, “pingebat” and the year. Borzello (Seeing Ourselves, 41) says Caterina’s portrait of herself is among the earliest, if not the earliest self-portrait of a woman artist. We see her palette gripped by a left thumb, her brushes ready in her fist, a mahlstick. Caterina has a high collar, and presents herself as a professional painter, but she is also dressed richly: layered velvet skirt, fancy work on her sleeves and lace around her neck. The face is a real unique face and resembles the faces of the woman at the spinet and in a nun’s habit below.
I chose her also because how she was able to become a woman painter by trade and vocation, resembles that of many of the women who became painters until the mid-18th century (when conditions in society and attitudes towards women and art began to change enough): she belonged to a painting family. The chief successful painter can be a father, a husband, an male-in-law (occasionally a woman is central too). Caterina van Hemessen (Jordi Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art, 33-38) was the second daughter of the painter Jan van Hemessen who in 1524 became a master of Antwerp, in 1548 a senior member of its guild.
This young woman playing the virginal is thought to be Caterina’s sister, Christina (according to records 2 years older than Caterina):
In Jordi Vigue’s book it’s suggested this one is meant to go with the one of Caterina painting as a set. Christina (if the girl is she) is so richly colored: black background alive, dark shades on her warm brown sleeves, high color, tight framed headdress with lappet. Her instrument is on a diagonal line, a spinet and virginal. The sitter’s skill (her fingers are playing) marks her as upper class, educated.
Caterina studied in her father’s studio and, as Catholic, painted religious scenes, all multi-figured, abundantly detailed. The one below shows they could be unusual because of its depiction of Veronica, kneeling on the ground holding an image of Jesus’s face:
According to an apocryphal text, The Death of Pilate, Veronica was bringing cloth to an artist to request a portrait of Jesus. She met Jesus on her way to the studio, and he took the cloth from her and his image magically appeared there. During the middle ages, she became part of the many legends of the era: she is said to have pitied Jesus as she saw him on the way to Calvary, and the cloth she used to dry his sweating, beaten-up shattered face magically had his image appear on it as a result. The composition is traditional except for the parallelism of Veronica with Jesus, the naturalism of her pose. Care has been take to make her sleeves and headdress a light teal blue, they are loose, her gown, golden flows around her. I can’t make out what the blackish area is; it might be a powerful thigh pushing out under her undershift (unusual for its dark colors). These colors are repeated in a woman higher up in the painting who is praying in a ritual posture, and a nobleman on a horse. Different figures have curiosity on their faces as they turn to look at what’s happening around them: it’s like a miniature, or an illuminated vignette in a book, with an arch to the side, a tower seen in the distance. It’s oil on wood.
She married Christian de Morien, organist for the Antwerp Cathedral, a gentleman, on February 23, 1554; in 1555 she is recorded as maid of honor in an official list of the court of Brussels. She seems to have found a patroness in Mary of Austria, sister to Emperor Charles V: Ludovico Guicciardini who named her as one of the five famous woman painters of the era, explained in his Descrittione de tutti i poesi bassi (1567) that Christian and Caterina were invited to Spain for “rare and excellent virtues” and were to receive an “endowment for the rest of their lives.” But after Mary of Austria’s death, records suggest the couple returned to Antwerp. The anecdotes offered are contradictory: her relationship with Mary of Austria (sometimes called Hungary) is elaborated upon (with no proof cited) as seemingly attached; it’s said she had a generous pension and must have kept on painting; but equally often that she left off painting later in life (see 50 Women Artists, Weideman et alia, 12-15; Honig Fine, Women and Art, 28-29; Heller, Women Artists, 24-25). Mary’s art collection included Titian and was bought by Philip II, became part of the foundation for the Portrait Gallery of the Prado. That’s why Caterina’s connection with Mary is brought out.
Heller sees Caterina as valued as a portraitist and miniaturist. For example, this “Portrait of a Man” (1552):
Although he wears the flattened cap, a variety of bonnet over very short hair. He wears a black doublet with precious stone decoration, and light ocher sleeves and trim, matching the luminous skin color of his face and blonde short beard; a ring hangs from his neck he wears another on his finger, grips a sword (no doubt about his status) decidedly; he other arm is less. I like its somberness and the lack of anecdote.
Caterina van Hemessen was included in Giorgio Vasari’s Vite (1568, published in Florence) in a chapter on Flemish painters (as an excellent miniaturist?). Later a Dutch physician from Dresden, Van Beverwyck (1594-1647) mentions her. There are no known certain works by her after 1555; there are attributions which are uncertain (a portrait of a young woman dated 1560 in the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Two more pictures: Not much is known about this, really only that the image is by Van Hemessen, and (what you see) of an older woman:
Her wedding ring shows; she has rich fur and lace trimming, is in black with a high collar, tight headdress. She looks out warily, is careful about her expression which has a sadness in it; she is controlling her long-fingered hands by keeping them folded one over another.
This last one is of doubtful attribution. The face is very like Caterina’s own, resembles the one of the young woman at the virginals and has been titled: “The artist’s sister in a nun habit:” it shows the same attention to hands doing something, the vulnerable (slightly nervous) expression on the face as most of Caterina’s known portraits. She looks alive; she is just swathed with cloth.
It’s appropriate to end with a short dedicatory poem by Anna Bijns (writer, schoolteacher, nun, born in Antwerp, by 1516, died 1575). A rare and informative essay on and some translations of her poetry have been written by Kristiann P.F. Aercke (in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Katherine Wilson, “Germanic Sappho,” pp 364-97):
Artistic tempers, with art on your minds
Nothing here bu what in good faith was done.
Now knowing this, relish its affection even more.
And in case of a fault, well, ’tis a woman’s work!
Bright spirits, to learn from you what’s right
I am prepared to do; let your wisdom join mine.
In technique my skill, I know, is poor,
Not masterly yet; hence my teachers I praise highly,
So, eagerly, by artists I’ll be taught.
For love of Truth, for an ever stronger Faith
I have blithely worked and shed no tears.
Two more anthologies which offer a good sense of the inner world of early modern women: Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson’s Early Modern Women Poets (good and ample selection, some from Latin, Gaelic, local dialects, but alas all British); Betty Travitsky’s The Paradise of Women (all Englishwomen except for Mary Stuart who of course lived in Britain).