Where? Kunstmuseum Basel
What do you see? A self portrait of the 20-years old Caterina (also spelled Catharina) van Hemessen. It shows the artist at her easel, working on the outline of a face. She probably looks into a mirror, not at the viewer. She wears the traditional wired head cover (haube) made of fine linen or perhaps delicate cotton that confirms she is at work or may refer to her devoutness. She holds her brushes and palette with the ease and familiarity of an artist. The brushed velvet of her clothing is expensive and proclaims her status and wealth in society. The white of the oak panel on the easel draws attention to the beginning of her drawing.
The portrait of herself seems to be a bit out of proportion, with her head and arms appearing relatively larger than what her body suggests. Note also the cross created by her brush in her right hand and the maulstick (rest or steadying stick used when painting) in her left. Perhaps she is equating her painting ability to a gift from God that she is sharing.
Van Hemessen has reversed the drawing on the panel from what the viewer sees in the finished portrait to provide a triangle from the unseen mirror, to the brush, to her face. She signed her finished painting: "Ego Caterina de Hemessen me pinxi 1548; Etatis suae 20" which translates to; I, Caterina of the Hemessens, painted me in 1548 at the age of 20. She wanted to be remembered.
Backstory: It is one of the oldest self-portraits painted by a woman, but more importantly, she has painted herself seated at the easel. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who died the year Caterina van Hemessen was probably born, painted several portraits of himself and is recognized as an early exponent of the self-portrait genre. Dürer never represented any of the paintbrushes, palette, easel, or even an allusion to his craft. Caterina not only makes it clear that she is a painter, she conveys that she is educated, wealthy, and suggests her religious nature.
Caterina's contribution to and development of self-portraiture can be seen in the following years as several of her fellow female artists also eternalized themselves at the easel, including Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c.1653), Michaelina Wautier (1604–1689), and Judith Leyster (1609–1660).