I spent yesterday presenting a the first week of a short course on Women Artists at the V&A, starting in the sixteenth century with Sofonisba Anguissola and moving on to Judith Leyster, Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Beale - not eras or artists I am closely familiar with, though much of their work is well known and as accomplished as that of many male contemporaries.
Two pictures are new to me: this enchanting portrait of an unidentified young woman by Antwerp-born Caterina van Hemmesan, painted around 1550 and now to be found in the Bowes Museum – cue for a return visit. The chaste palette enhances the sitter’s sober yet alert expression. She is fingering her wedding ring, so this is presumably a wedding portrait? It’s notable for the pictorial device of the shadow on the wall behind the sitter, endowing the flat image with an illusion of depth and making her seem very immediate to us.
The other picture is Gentileschi’s supposed self-portrait with a lute, from about 1615. Artists often used themselves as models, so it may not have been intended as a selfie, though it evidently is. The depiction is beautifully sensuous, with skin on bosom and hands that seems to glow with warmth and touchability. The lutenist's expression is curiously guarded; one can interpret it is quizzical - what does her audience think of the music? or don't look at my tits, listen to my playing. As it turns out, the work is being sold by Christies in New York on 29 January.