The mirror and the palette Rebellion, revolution, and resilience, five hundred years of women's self portraits

Jennifer Higgie

Book - 2021

"Her story weaves in and out of time and place. She's Frida Kahlo, Loïs Mailou Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil en route to Mexico City, Paris or Bombay. She's Suzanne Valadon and Gwen John, craving city lights, the sea and solitude; she's Artemisia Gentileschi striding through the streets of Naples and Paula Modersohn-Becker in Worpswede. She's haunting museums in her paint-stained dress, scrutinising how El Greco or Titian or Van Dyck or Čzanne solved the problems that she too is facing. She's railing against her corsets, her chaperones, her husband and her brothers; she's hammering on doors, dreaming in her bedroom, working day and night in her studio. Despite the immense hurdles that have been placed in her... way, she sits at her easel, picks up a mirror and paints a self-portrait because, as a subject, she is always available. Until the twentieth century, art history was, in the main, written by white men who tended to write about other white men. The idea that women in the West have always made art was rarely cited as a possibility. Yet they have - and, of course, continue to do so - often against tremendous odds, from laws and religion to the pressures of family and public disapproval. In The Mirror and the Palette, Jennifer Higgie introduces us to a cross-section of women artists who embody the fact that there is more than one way to understand our planet, more than one way to live in it and more than one way to make art about it. Spanning 500 years, biography and cultural history intertwine in a narrative packed with tales of rebellion, adventure, revolution, travel and tragedy enacted by women who turned their back on convention and lived lives of great resilience, creativity and bravery"

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 704.042/Higgie Coming Soon
New York, NY : Pegasus Books 2021
Main Author
Jennifer Higgie (author)
First Pegasus Books cloth edition
Physical Description
328 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Prologue. The deceits of the past ; The city of women ; Their little hands, so tender and white ; Cabinet of curiosities ; The fault in our star? ; A self-portrait is never one thing
  • 1. Easel. The liberating looking glass ; The equal of the muses and Apelles ; How to paint an apricot ; I want to be everything
  • 2. Smile. The lodestar ; They call me Madame Van Dyck
  • 3. Allegory. A story, stilled ; It's true, it's true ; The sun of Italy and the gem of Europe ; My grey hair ; Self-portrait hesitating
  • 4. Hallucination. I Do Not See the (Woman) Hidden in the Forest ; There are things that are not sayable ; I am the subject I know best
  • 5. Solitude. Fine and fierce things ; The strange form ; I've scraped by, up and down
  • 6. Translation. Tradition thinks for you, but heavens! how dull! ; To be known by name ; To draw seeing every feather ; Self-portrait as Tahitian
  • 7. Naked. Open to everything ; The model models for herself ; The painting and the painter. Epilogue.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this idiosyncratic and fascinating primer, critic and artist Higgie (There's Not One) skillfully restores marginalized women self-portraitists to their rightful place in the art pantheon. Interweaving biographical profiles and pointed cultural commentary, she charges through 500 years of art history to reveal her trailblazing subjects' "shared desire to try to make sense of the world with a paintbrush." Noting that "a self-portrait is not only a description of concrete reality, it's also an expression of an inner world," Higgie brings to light the lives of a number of women artists whose creations were a way to assert their existence in a milieu that often overlooked them. Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola's subversive painting The Chess Game (1555) rendered her the "first artist to portray her family as a primary subject," while Mary Beale's double portrait of her and her husband in 1675 flipped "traditional marriage roles." For Frida Kahlo, art became "a form of catharsis" mentally and physically (after surviving a bus accident at 18, she underwent 32 operations before dying of complications related to her injuries almost 30 years later). Meanwhile, German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker's 1906 self-portrait was "a defiant... acknowledgment of the energy and ambition that consumed her." Full of edgy insights, this engrossing survey will delight art connoisseurs and general readers alike. Agent: David Godwin, David Godwin Assoc. (Oct.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

In this volume, London-based Australian art critic Higgie examines self-portraits by women artists from the Western tradition, grouped thematically. She first establishes that women have historically struggled to be socially accepted as artists; forbidden to draw from models in art schools, women artists often turned to themselves as subjects. Then she turns to the self-portraits--some by well-known painters (Frida Kahlo; Alice Neel), but many by artists are little known outside their own countries. Themes include self-portraits of the artist at her easel (Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola); allegorical self-portraits (Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi); and self-portraits by painters who thrived on solitude (20th-century English artist Gwenn John; Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck; Australian artist Nora Heyson). The chapter "Translation" features 20th-century artists (Australian Margaret Preston; New Zealander Rita Angus; Hungarian Indian Amrita Sher-Gil) whose works attempted to reconcile the Western European pictorial language of modernism with the native artistic traditions of their countries. VERDICT This engaging and accessible book is recommended for anyone interested in women artists, but readers will need to have another reference source nearby, as images are limited to one or two reproductions per artist.--Sandra Rothenberg, Framingham State Univ. Lib., MA

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

An art critic examines female self-portraits and identity over the course of five centuries. As editor at large of frieze magazine and the presenter of Bow Down, a podcast about women in art history, Higgie has an extensive knowledge of the works of women artists, most of whom have struggled historically with being accepted as serious artists. They have been excluded from artistic training, denied access to materials, underrepresented in commercial galleries and by art critics, and have faced physical and emotional abuse. However, as the author contends, "If she had access to a mirror, a palette, an easel and paint, a woman could endlessly reflect on her face, and, by extension, her place in the world." Focusing primarily yet not exclusively on self-portraits, Higgie explores various aspects of the lives and times of numerous painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Rita Angus, Amrita Sher-Gil, and Suzanne Valadon. The author does not follow a linear pattern; rather, she groups her minibiographies by categories such as Allegory, Hallucination, Solitude, Translation, and Naked, moving back and forth across time and genre. While her book is well researched and provides wonderful descriptions of the selected works to which she refers, at times, Higgie appears to struggle with a desire to find a stronger connection between the artists than exists. Frequently, she ponders if the artists may have met or known of each other's work, followed by the reluctant answer that we do not know. This pattern feels stilted and detracts from the flow of the book. While the text initially feels dry and academic, perhaps due to limited information being available related to the early artists, Higgie finds her stride around the midpoint, creating an overall fascinating commentary about the identity of female artists. The book includes color photos of many of the works discussed. A mostly engaging analysis of the resilience of female artists throughout modern history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.