Self-portraits by women artists in Library and Archives Canada’s collection

Until the beginning of the last century, official self-portraits by women artists were rare, compared to those created by men. This was, in large part, because few women worked and were recognized as professional artists during the early periods. But it is also because many self-representations created by women were in non-traditional formats—hidden within amateur sketchbooks, or private diaries… even stitched or sewn.

A few of Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) most interesting sketched and painted examples are currently on display as part of The Artist Herself: Self-Portraits by Canadian Historical Women Artists, a new exhibition co-curated by Alicia Boutilier of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and Tobi Bruce of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The exhibition deliberately expands the traditional definition of ‘self-portrait’; most of the works it showcases would not have been considered self-portraits at the time they were created.

It includes this page from the private sketchbook of Katherine Jane (Janie) Ellice (1813–1864), an accomplished amateur artist and wife of an official with the North West (fur trading) Company. Ellice used the reflection from a mirror on the wall of her ship’s cabin to capture a quick, and very private, image of herself aboard ship.

Watercolour sketch shows the artist and her sister, dressed in nightwear, reclining in a bunk of their ship’s cabin.

Mrs. Ellice and Miss Balfour reflected in the looking glass of their cabin on board the H.M.S. Hastings (MIKAN 2836908)

It also includes Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), another ‘fur-trade wife’—but one who would develop something of a professional artist career. Hopkins’ enormous voyageur-themed canvases often include representations of herself that seem almost incidental. It’s believed that she appears, in this painting, as a passenger in the canoe:

Painting shows a group of fur trade workers steering a Hudson’s Bay Company canoe past a small waterfall; the artist and her husband may be passengers seated in the middle of the canoe.

Canoe manned by voyageurs passing a waterfall (MIKAN 2894475)

These are only a few examples, from LAC’s collection, of historical self-portraits made by women. It’s worth noting that the collection also includes many others, both historical—and modern.

The Artist in her Museum was created by contemporary Métis artist Rosalie Favell in 2005.

Colour digital print shows the artist, full-length, and flanked by a mammoth, a beaver, and an artist’s palette. She draws aside a red curtain to reveal a gallery of mounted black-and-white photographs.

The Artist in her Museum, 2005. © Rosalie Favell (MIKAN 3930728)

Favell used digital technology to manipulate an iconic American self-portrait from the 19th century. By putting her own image in place of the original sitter, Favell appropriated a classic work, assigning new meanings within an older convention.

Modern self-portraits, like Favell’s, compare intriguingly with the historical self-representations showcased in The Artist Herself. Today’s more relaxed and expanded definitions of portraiture allow contemporary artists to successfully play within the genre. They also allows us to look back, with fresh eyes, on the self-representations created by women in the past.

Visit the exhibition in Kingston between May 2 and August 9, 2015. Stay tuned for further dates as the exhibition tours nationally, before closing in Hamilton during the summer of 2016.

2 thoughts on “Self-portraits by women artists in Library and Archives Canada’s collection

  1. Can you give me a schedule for this touring exhibition? I have friends in other cities who might like to see it, but I can’t find town/city names and dates for the exhibition. Thank you!

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