The Power of Painting Self-Portraits
By Sadie Valeri
As an artist, and especially as a woman artist, creating a self-portrait is the most powerful thing you can do for your personal artistic development, your career, and your place in history.
In terms of the scope of human history and the total number of humans who have lived on our planet, very few have had the opportunity to cultivate the skills and nurture the talents necessary to create a self-portrait. Self-portraits done from life hold a particular fascination, as we look into the eyes of the artist just as they looked into their own eyes.
For my 2011 painting “Self Portrait at 41 with Dog” I set up an enormous mirror in my very small studio, and spent 5 days a week for 3 weeks wearing the same shirt and looking at myself. I have done other smaller self portraits, but this one was the most demanding, as it included my studio, my dog, and a three-quarter view of myself, including my hand holding my palette. Needless to say, I have never again worn that white blouse!
So why is it important for a woman artist to paint a self-portrait? For one, the exceedingly rare incidence of women who have even been allowed to paint. For another, the recent era in which women fought for and achieved the right to an equal education to men has (conveniently?) coincided with the only anti-figurative era in Western art history. That’s right: Almost immediately after women gained entry to serious art schools to study figure drawing and painting from life in the late 1890s, figurative painting suddenly went out of style, and abstraction and conceptual art has dominated Western culture ever since.
This means that many young women artists who did attend art school in the 20th century still never experienced the rigorous training in figurative art that had been made available to male artists for the preceding 400 years.
Given that, the incidence of a self-portrait painted by a woman is exceedingly rare, and so I consider it a responsibility simply to say I existed, as an artist.
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