Honor Clerk

Sexy self-advertising

Frances Borzello argues that the best way for female artists to advertise their skills was to paint self-portraits

At nearly eight foot high and five foot wide, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s portrait of herself with two of her students is by any reckoning a tour-de-force. Painted in 1785, it shows the artist seated at her easel, palette, brushes and mahlstick in hand, as though looking up briefly before adding to the large canvas before her. Seated on a gilt and green velvet chair, she is dressed in a pale blue satin décolleté dress and a straw hat decorated with ribbons and ostrich feathers. Her two female pupils stand behind her, one gazing in admiration at the work in progress, the other looking out of the painting, level-eyed and sober.

It is a complex and entirely successful composition on a grand scale: its rhythms convince, its sitters engage with each other and with the viewer, the quality of the painting is superb, the rendering of the satin fabric matches the bravura of the flashiest swagger portrait. It is in the collection of one of the largest museums in one of the most aggressively egalitarian cities in the world, but when you click on the website of New York’s Metropolitan Museum to see in which room this masterpiece hangs, you are confronted with three words: Not on View.

In a sense this is a cheap shot. Museums cannot show everything they own and massive works like Labille-Guiard’s compete for wall space with others equally proficient. Without its display history it is impossible to know how often this painting sees the light of day, but it is perhaps not unfair to see it as part of a long story of the lack of acknowledgment of a whole genre.

That women’s self-portraits constitute a genre is a case forcibly argued by Frances Borzello in Seeing Ourselves, the revised edition of her book first published in 1998.

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