A Feminist History of Self-Portraiture

Emily Pothast
Feb 28 · 15 min read

Self-representation and subverting the gaze from 40,000 BCE to the present

If you have ever taken an art history class, you have probably come across a photograph of this object:

Venus of Willendorf. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

The Venus of Willendorf, named for a village in Austria near the site where it was found, is a limestone figurine, about 4 and a half inches tall. It was probably carved between 28,000 and 25,000 BC. Since its discovery in 1908, this statue has been the subject of debate about its purpose and function.

The name ‘Venus’ is of course something of a misnomer, as this object predates the Roman pantheon by many centuries. But it has long been applied to the Venus of Willendorf, as well as several other paleolithic sculptures, due to the possible erotic and/or religious purpose of these statues. These Venuses typically have swollen breasts, enlarged abdomens, irrelevant hands and feet. The Venus of Willendorf has tiny hands, which you can see right above her breasts, but other Venuses—like the Venus of Hoele Fels, discovered in a cave in Germany in 2008, lack hands and feet altogether. Likewise, these figurines generally lack faces.

Venus of Hoele Fels. Urgeschichtliches Museum, Blaubeuren.

This particular Venus, carved from mammoth ivory and standing about 2 ½ inches tall, is significant because not only is it the earliest undisputed example of a human being in prehistoric art, it is also several thousand years older than the Venus that previously held this distinction. The Venus of Hoele Fels is thought to be between 40,000 and 35,000 years old.

Nicholas Conard, the archaologist who led the team that discovered this figure, has stated, “This [figure] is about sex, reproduction… [it is] an extremely powerful depiction of the essence of being female”. Another researcher, Paul Mellars at the University of Cambridge, has characterized the enlarged breasts and prominent labia “bordering on the pornographic.”

Both of these assessments are striking for the assumptions they presume to make about statues carved hundreds of centuries ago. Surely a feminine body must be “about sex”—why else would anyone create such an object? In the 1970s, the film critic Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” to describe the tendency of the camera to frame women’s bodies as though they are passive objects for the audience’s delight and consumption. It would seem that both of these anthropologists are projecting something like the “male gaze” onto the intentions of a prehistoric artist when in reality, we haven’t got the faintest clue what the people who made these things thought about them.

In 1996, art historian LeRoy McDermott offered an alternative view of these figurines that I find enticing. In an article published in the journal Current Anthropology, McDermott suggests that paleolithic venus figurines might actually be self-portraits, made without the aid of a mirror, citing not only the strange proportions, but also the lack of facial features.

Illustration from McDermott’s article showing the similarity between paleolithic venus figurines and a 30-year-old woman’s view of her own body.

The visual cortex of the human brain contains a hugely disproportionate amount of dedicated processing space to facial recognition. We are so prone to seeing facial features that we even see them where no face is actually present. The face is where we communicate the bulk of our emotions when we are interacting with other human beings. And so the decision to portray paleolithic Venus figurines without a face is remarkable. As McDermott sees it, there are two basic types of reasons which may be given for the lack of faces: symbolic reasons and iconographic reasons. Traditional interpretations of the Venus figurines have assumed that the lack of faces is symbolic—the face is not depicted because it is not conceptually important to do so, because this figure is defined by her capacity for reproduction. What McDermott wonders is whether the reason for the lack of face could be iconographic—there is no face, because the face is simply not included in the region that the artist is attempting to represent.

McDermott’s hypothesis is by no means universally accepted, however it offers an interesting entry point for thinking about the possible prehistoric origins of self-portraiture, as well as a history of representations of the feminine form which may be conceptually liberated from notions of a “male gaze.” Because signing artworks was not a common practice before the Renaissance, certain aspects of this history must remain speculative. However it is interesting to think about the ways that the women (and gender non-conforming) artists that we do know about have developed the concept of the self-portrait.

Kora of Sicyon (7th c. BCE)

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, The Origin of Painting (1786)

The first woman artist whose name is known to history is Kora of Sicyon, also known as Calliroe, who lived in Greece in the 7th century BC. Here we see Kora depicted in a 1786 painter by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Regnault. As the story goes, Kora was the daughter of a carver named Butatys of Sicyron. One day, while hanging out with a boy that she liked, Kora traced the shadow of his profile onto the wall with charcoal. Her father saw it and being a carver, decided to realize the image of clay, thereby creating the first bas-relief. While Kora’s outline is not a self-portait per se, it is certainly an image of feminine agency which subverts the assumed directionality of the gaze.

Catharina van Hemessen (1528-after 1565)

Catharina van Hemessen. Self Portrait (1548)

The earliest known self portrait by a woman in oil painting is this 1548 painting by Flemish Renaissance artist Catharina van Hemessen. This image might also be the very first self portrait to establish the convention of the artist depicting themself at work at the easel.

During the Renaissance, training for artists included the dissection of cadavers, as well as drawing and painting from nude male models. In addition, aspiring artists were expected to take an apprenticeship where they lived and worked with an older artist. Women were generally excluded from these activities, which meant that it was almost unheard of for them to become working artists.

Like Kora of Siscyon, Catarina van Hemessen’s father was a painter, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, and he is believed to have been her teacher. The earliest known self-portrait by a woman in oil painting is this 1548 painting by Flemish Renaissance artist Catharina van Hemessen. This image might also be the very first self-portrait to establish the convention of the artist depicting themself at work at the easel.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625)

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait, 1556.

Sofonisba Anguissola was an Italian renaissance painter who left Italy at the age of 26 to become the court painter for the Queen of Spain, Elisabeth of Valois, the 3rd wife of Philip II, who was herself an amateur portraitist.

While Anguissola’s father encouraged her to follow her passions, she was nonetheless confronted by the social constraints for women, including the study of anatomy and the viewing of nudes. Because she lacked the technical training necessary to undertake complex, multi-figure paintings, she experimented instead with new styles of portraiture, staging her subjects in informal, often indoor settings. Throughout her life, she painted many self-portraits, portraying herself as a reader, a piano player, and eventually, as an elegant elderly woman.

Anguissola was a direct influence on later generations of Italian women who would see her work and became painters themselves, including Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, and Artemesia Gentileschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)

Artemesia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638–39)

Due to a high-profile trial in which she publicly testified against her rapist, Artemisia Gentileschi is almost as well known for being a survivor of sexual violence as she is for the feminist rage of her paintings of biblical beheadings. Another woman artist whose father was her first teacher, Gentileschi is among the most skilled painters of her generation. Her 1638 painting Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting adeptly demonstrates this technical skill, while also pointing to her uniqueness as a woman painter.

In Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, the iconographer states that the concept of “Painting” should be portrayed allegorically as

“(a) beautiful woman, with full black hair, disheveled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front “imitation.” She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently covered drapery.”

The figure in Gentileschi’s painting clearly embodies the qualities of this “Allegory of Painting”; what is less obvious is that this image is also a self-portrait, an idea first proposed by the art historian Michael Levey. While it is not universally excepted that this image is a self-portrait, it certainly could be. Gentileschi’s Allegory thus stands both within and outside the tradition by suggesting that the artist’s body and the feminine spirit of painting could be one and the same.

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Mary Cassatt. Portrait of the Artist (1878).

Mary Cassatt’s work was often inspired by the affection and intimacy of childbirth and family life, though she did not have any children of her own. A successful, highly trained woman who never married, Cassatt was a supporter of women’s suffrage and an embodiment of the feminist spirit that was emerging during the 19th century in France, where she spent much of her career. This 1878 self-portrait was created a year after she was invited by her close friend Edgar Degas to exhibit with the impressionists. Here, she depicts herself as a confident, modern woman in casual repose.

Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945)

Käthe Kollwitz. Selbstbildnis mit der Hand an der Stirn (1910).

The German painter, printmaker, and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz unflinchingly depicted the horrors of war, especially its impact on families and children (her son Peter was killed in combat in World War I). Her work also explores themes of poverty and the oppression of the working classes, depicting both the early modern Peasants’ War and contemporary workers’ revolts. An exquisite draftswoman, Kollwitz often used the etched and lithographic line to express a kind of restless anxiety. Her many printed self-portraits are among the most revealing, psychologically intense images of German expressionism.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)

Many of Frida Kahlo’s most memorable works are self-portraits in which the artist depicts her own physical frailty and vulnerability. In the 1940 painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, she depicts herself in masculine dress, the long tresses that have been cut from her head surrounding her in a surreal landscape. Lauren Mushro writes,

Frida’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair makes a comment on the idea of performing gender and sex during her time period. At the top of the portrait she writes, “Mira que si te quise, fue por el pelo. Ahora que está pelona, ya no te quiero/Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are short- haired, I don’t love you anymore.” After Kahlo found out that Diego and her sister had an affair for nearly a year, she chopped off all her hair and created this self-portrait. According to Frida, Diego’s favorite part of her was her hair, and her hair came to represent her power and sexuality in their relationship. … In her self-portrait, not only does she show herself in a suit with cropped hair, but she also paints scissors in her hand and the clumps of hair that she chopped off. Distancing herself from the very feminine, she demonstrates that she is completely in control of her sexuality and her power over Diego.

Claude Cahun (1894–1954)

Claude Cahun. Self Portrait (1928).

In many ways, Frida’s surreal gender performance echoes the work of queer surreal photographers like Claude Cahun, who sought to undermine fixed gender roles with their life and work. “Masculine? Feminine?” wrote Cahun in their 1930 memoir. “It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

Salouda Raouda Choucair (1916–2017)

Salouda Raouda Choucair. Self Portrait (1943).

Having the reputation for being the first abstract artist to exhibit in Lebanon, Salouda Raouda Choucair is best known for her boldly colored geometric paintings and sculptures. Her 1943 self-portrait applies the logic of geometric abstraction to her own countenance, framing her forceful gaze with bold, angular snatches of peach, cream, gold, and azure.

Carolee Schneemann (1939–2019)

Carolee Schneemann. From Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963)

Trained as a painter, Carolee Schneemann began to work with photography in the early 1960s, staging environments in her studio and using her own body in her compositions. Schneemann would later go on to become a pioneer in the body art movement with performances like Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975), which explored the visceral, expressive possibilities of a body in motion.

Yoko Ono (b. 1933)

Yoko Ono. Cut Piece (1964)

By the 1960s, the presentation of the body had become folded into the action of performance art. Self-portraiture was no longer static, but rather a field of interactive possibility involving the bodies of performers and the possible actions of audience members. In one of the most important pieces of 1960s performance art, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), members of the audience were invited to cut the artist’s clothing off of her body while she remained motionless.

In the catalog for the exhibition WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution, Peggy Phelan writes of this piece:

…for me the power of [Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece] resides in the drama of physical intimacy that the piece stages. To participate in the performance, the spectator has to come onstage; he or she has to enter the performance space and give up the security inherent in voyeurism and become the object of the audience’s gaze. … In the…film of the New York performance, when a particularly aggressive male spectator approaches and cuts off her bra strap, the artist flinches for a brief second before she resumes her passive sacrifice. This flicker is precisely where live performance gains hits power; unscripted and momentary, Ono’s work exposes the aggression that marks sexual difference and the laborious efforts women make not to be undone by it. …

In 1974, the themes of Ono’s Cut Piece were revisited in Marina Abramović’s performance Rhythm 0. Promising to remain passive for six hours, …Abramović invited spectators to use any of the seventy-two objects she had arrayed on a table next to her in a gallery in Naples. The objects…included a feather, a scalpel, paint, a gun, and a bullet. Before long, Abramović’s skin had been cut and she was bleeding; a spectator had put the gun in her hand and cocked it against her forehead. There was a growing sense of danger. Other spectators intervened and Abramović accepted their care. In this radical gesture of an even more profound acceptance of the spectators’ will than the original plan, a gesture that showed how active passivity often is, the performance was transformed; Abramović allowed her spectators to become co-creators of her work.

Adrian Piper (b. 1948)

Adrian Piper is another artist whose work in the performative arena blurs boundaries between self representation and reflecting the thoughts and desires of the audience back on them. In her 1973 performance The Mythic Being, Piper developed a working class, masculine alter ego and then went about her daily life in character—riding the subway, walking down the street—reciting a mantra in her head in order to keep her personal thoughts and the thoughts of her Mythic Being separate. Piper’s Mythic Being had no history, thoughts, or identity of his own. Every idea that the individuals he encountered had about him were projected upon him.

Adrian Piper, The Mythic Being (1973)

This is the point in the this brief survey of feminist self portraiture that it is also germane to mention Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941), who fabricated an alter ego named Roberta Breitmore whose entire identity consists of the ways she has been documented, Orlan (b. 1947), who has reinvented herself many times through plastic surgery, and Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) who portrays herself as a variety of feminine stereotypes derived primarily from cinema. And of course this list would not be complete without a nod to Annie Sprinkle’s Public Cervix Announcement, which gave viewers intimate access to the inside of the artist’s body.

Lorenza Böttner (1959–1994)

Lorenza Böttner was a transgender Chilean-German artist, born in Punta Arenas to a German family. When she was eight years old, she was shocked by an electrical tower trying to reach a bird’s nest, and both of her arms were amputated.

From the website of documenta 14 (where I first saw Böttner’s work):

Lorenza transformed the practice of painting into performance art, making the streets a stage for the politicization of bodily difference. In doing so, Lorenza to some extent entered the tradition of mouth and foot painters making a living from painting in public. However, Lorenza’s work subverts this tradition of public painting both through the themes being depicted (self-portraits as a woman nursing a baby, scenes of police brutality) and through the combination of mouth and foot painting with a more conceptual language, informed by contemporary performance art.

Thus, for instance, in the Venus de Milo performance (first performed in Kassel, but later taken to New York and San Francisco), Lorenza’s dissident transgender body becomes a living political sculpture, a trans-armless sculptural manifesto. Surpassing both the male narcissistic position of dripping painting and the feminist tradition of public performance, Lorenza painted while dancing on a piece of paper or on a canvas spread over the street floor, claiming the right to exist and create in a transgender armless body. Böttner travelled extensively doing hundreds of street performance paintings.

Hannah Wilke (1940–1993)

Hannah Wilke, Brush Strokes (1992)

Hannah Wilke first rose to prominence making somewhat banal photographs of herself with little clay vaginas stuck all over her body. Following her lymphoma diagnosis, however, the artist’s work took an extremely poignant term as she documented her own death. The series Intra-Venus (1992–1993) tracks the transformations in her body; meanwhile Brush Strokes (1992) is an intimate glimpse of the artist’s hair, which was falling out in clumps.

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

Faith Ringgold, Self-Portrait (1998)

One of the most prominent and prolific artists of the 20th century, Faith Ringgold has made a number of literal self-portraits, like the famous red and blue one from 1965 housed at the Brooklyn Museum. However it is her 1998 textile titled Self-Portrait, in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, that pushes the notion of self-portraiture into the realm of craft, narrative, ancestry, and legacy.

Storme Webber (b. 1959)

Two Spirit Sugpiaq/Black/Choctaw poet and interdisciplinary artist Storme Webber often uses self-portraiture as a mode of representation in in order to trace themes of ancestry, gender, and race in her work. Her 2017 exhibition at Frye Art Museum included portraits of the artists alongside selfies made by her queer ancestors in photo booths.

Iiu Susiraja

In her striking, often humorous self-portraits, Finnish photographer Iiu Susiraja treats her body like a sculpture, often placing it in dialogue with everyday found objects. “I find inspiration when having a moment of rest on the couch,” she has said of her work. “I am thinking of different objects in my mind. The most important matter is what kind of feelings objects generates.”

Ellie DiCola

In 2017, I interviewed the artist Ellie DiCola for the website Art Practical about her work, including a series of surreal videos she created and uploaded to PornHub. By presenting her work in a place where a specific kind of eroticism is expected, DiCola weaves a narrative about gender and trauma.

Liz Mputo

In 2014, the artist Liz Mputo created one of the most active selfie groups on Facebook. In a fantastic 2016 interview for Rhizome, the artist spoke frankly about the possibilities and pitfalls of selfies as a site of self-expression and other issues of digital embodiment.

Zohra Opoku

Opoku’s self-portraits often show the artist in varying degrees of concealment, either beneath layers of textured fabric, or by lush foliage.

“When I see someone who is fully veiled, I’m always thinking about what’s underneath, and become curious about the person I don’t see,” she told me in an interview in 2018. “I tried different ways of veiling myself to create different versions of myself in a veiled situation.”

Form and Resonance

New media ride on ancient pathways. Let’s make a map!

Emily Pothast

Written by

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

Form and Resonance

New media ride on ancient pathways. Let’s make a map!

Emily Pothast

Written by

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

Form and Resonance

New media ride on ancient pathways. Let’s make a map!

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