14 October 2010

A 16th-century woman paints a self-portrait

Self-Portrait, Caterina van Hemessen (Flemish), oil on oak panel, 1548, 30.8 x 24.4 cm, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel
"This painting is both one of the earliest self-portraits by a woman in the modern age, but one of the first self-portraits by an artist of either gender to display themself in the act of painting—at the time it was more common for the artist to depict themself in a plain sitting, or dressed up as a member of the upper classes."
I have a question for someone who knows more about art than I do.  If a self-portrait like this is executed by viewing oneself in a mirror, then the viewed image would be left/right-reversed.  How did artists compensate for this?  Assume this lady was right-handed; to sketch the self-portrait, would she have posed with her brush in her left hand while facing the mirror?  Or would she have used a camera obscura to project her outline on a wall and have an assistant sketch the outlines?  Or used a series of mirrors to correct the left/right reversal?

Image credit Wikimedia Commons, via La Muse Verte.


  1. I love that you would even think to ask this.

    It appears to me as if she painted her hands from life, as they are in front of her, and then painted her face and body from the mirror. There's an odd disconnect between her limbs and her torso.

    My two cents worth, anyway.

  2. You can train your brain to think backward, basically.

    Puppeteers do this regularly. It's apparently one of the hardest parts of the craft, but a necessary one.

    Imagine you're the guy performing Yoda. You're below set and Yoda's eyes can't see for you. You're basically blind.

    To compensate for this, a camera is trained on you. You get a monitor with a video feed of that camera piped, roughly, to your feet. But the feed is necessarily backward. So you have to train your brain that right is left and left is right.

    Having spoken to a puppeteer, he says you get used to it, but it makes it really hard to comb your hair in the mirror later in life. Seriously.

  3. Who cares about that. Why is the painting in progess already framed?

  4. Maybe she was left handed. (Although I suspect Cavalaxis is right.)

  5. I know this sounds like EXTREME pedantry, but a mirror image is not left/right-reversed it is front/back-reversed. See [1].

  6. pedantry is welcome on this blog.


  7. Beautiful!

    BTW- Photographers who photograph with large format view cameras have to deal with a reversed, upside down image when composing!

  8. The painting is "framed" to provide a frame for the Mahl stick. I don't think that would be the final frame for the painting.

  9. To speak to the First thing, no one told her it couldn't be done, so she went ahead and painted herself painting. I imagine it seemed perfectly obvious to her.


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