|Caterina van Hemessen "Self Portrait Seated at an Easel" 1548|
This image is remarkable for being perhaps the very first Northern European self-portrait painting in which the artist shows him or herself at work! It is not the first self-portrait of course, but artists tended to show themselves in their finest attire and at leisure or in prayer, similarly to the way they portrayed their wealthy patrons or church officials. This is, I believe, the first known instance of the working self-portrait in the history of European painting, by either a man or a woman.
The flemish artist Caterina van Hemessen (1528 – 1587) painted this small work in oils on a wood panel, inscribing the piece with these words "I Caterina van Hemessen have painted myself / 1548 / Her aged 20" (The piece is said to now hang in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel, but a recent search of that institution returned "0 results". However, the piece turns up in the archived collection of the Kunstmuseum, Basel, which may simply be another branch or updated subsidiary of the former institution. "Caterina" is sometimes spelled "Catharina", in case you are interested enough to do some research of your own.)
Van Hemessen was the daughter of painter, Jan Sanders van Hemessen (ca. 1500 - 1563), who was her teacher. This self-portrait is probably her best known work but she went on to a healthy career making portraits of wealthy men and women, usually posed against a dark or neutral background. She was a member in good standing of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp and was teacher to three male students, which indicate she was respected and successful. She gained an important patron in Maria of Austria, Regent of the Low Countries. When Maria resigned her post and returned to Spain, Caterina and her husband were invited to accompany her and did so. Two years later in 1558 when Maria died, Caterina was awarded a generous pension and she and her husband returned to Antwerp.