• Erin

Art - Women in the National Gallery, Catharina van Hemessen

There's not many women artists in the National Gallery, but it makes the ones which do make an appearance even more special.

One of those women is Catharina van Hemessen, who has two teeny tiny paintings here in London, which are quite often in the downstairs rooms (or otherwise not on display).


But they are definitely worth seeking out, even if they are a little strange looking.

Self Portrait of Catharina van Hemessen, Kunstmuseum Basel

Catharina van Hemessen, born 1528 was one of the earliest female Flemish painters of which paintings survive which can be confidently attributed to her. She is celebrated for creating the first self-portrait of an artist at an easel, pictured above. Odd claim, but one I'm sure she would be proud of. This painting of her, which I absolutely adore is at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland, and I'm just desperate to visit.


Of the ten paintings which survive of hers, eight are very small portraits of women, which she appears to have become known for. And we are lucky to have one of these here in the National Gallery, as well as a portrait of a man.

Portrait of a Woman by Catharina van Hemessen, 1551, National Gallery, London

'Portrait of a Woman' depicts an unknown sitter, and what I love most about this painting is what she's wearing. Especially the embroidered shirt which can be seen on her neck, chest and wrists, as well as her her damask skirt - it's a shame we can't see more of it! I also adore those white decorated gloves she clutches in her hands, don't these two areas just give the impression that a woman painted this? Such attention to detail of these things, I assume, were made my women.

Her dog always make me laugh though, how it balances on her arm, and gives the impression that she's forgotten all about it.

In the top right corner are the words CATHARINA DE/HEMESSEN PINGEBAT/1551 (‘Catharine de Hemessen was painting [this] 1551’.

Portrait of a Man by Catharina van Hemessen, 1552, National Gallery, London

A second painting attributed to Catharina is 'Portrait of a Man', possibly painted in 1552. It's another depiction of a wealthy client, with rather impressive attire. His tight fitting doublet, slashed to reveal his shirt underneath, decorated with red jewels. Although unknown, it was at one point believed to be Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, but there is no proof (as of yet!).


Like the first painting we looked at, she too has signed this one, with the words 'Catharina, daughter of Johannes de Hemessen was painting [it]. 1552'. Ok we might feel a bit sorry for her not being able to stand on her name alone, but instead state her father. But it's safe to say that being a female artist in the 16th century definitely had its barriers. Luckily for Catharina, she received her training from her father, the successful history and genre painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen. She collaborated with him on many of his paintings but later made a name for herself. She became a master in the Guild of St. Luke and even went on to teach three students.


She was a successful artist during her life, and made quite a name for herself. But it seems after she married in 1554, (a well known organist of Antwerp Cathedral) she gave up painting. A few years later she and her husband joined the court of Queen Mary of Hungary, who after her death two years later, left the couple with a generous pension.


I'll leave you with two more paintings by Catharina to finish with. The first (1559) is just adorable - a small child in a beautifully depicted outfit , but I just can't get past that face.

Attributed to Catharina van Hemessen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The second is painted a year later in 1560, just to show you she could indeed paint faces rather well.

Attributed to Catharina van Hemessen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Heard in London


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