Seeing ourselves – women’s self portraits

I have re-shared the below blog post from a year ago where I wrote about the Frances Borzello book ‘Seeing Ourselves’ – womens self portraits , as I revisit the book again for the writing of my CRoP.

On first looking one could wonder why I would even be talking about self portraits, after all I do not ‘feature’ in anything but two of the images out of thousands I have taken over the last two years. However, instead I argue I have been present in every single one of them. When I photographed my own family, I was undoubtedly there, woven into every image like an invisible thread. When I photographed the 18 families for Heuristic spaces, I am there represented in the mothers portraits I took , showing the freedom, the passion for what we do, the love for our children, the unbelievable hard work that is put in by the parents to achieve this lifestyle.

Every time someone questions me on self portraits I am reminded of the section in Borzello’s book where she talks about absent self portraits that the female artists of the past took and how they represented themselves, their lives, their art, their hopes and dreams in their art, without there being so much as a single physical trace of them within the scene. This is what I have achieved in my project, reminding me very much of a quote from one of the very first books I read on the MA, Susan Bright’s ‘Home Truths’ where she says “So where is the ‘mother’ in all of this. In a way she is dissolved.” (Bright Pg 23)


The below is reposted from my crj post on 02.04.20

Over the last few weeks of this module I have been reading Frances’ Borello’s book below, Seeing ourselves, women’s self portraits, as a way of both historically and philosophically informing my work, and also to help locate my practice further across not just contemporary work being made my photographers today, but across a long history of female artists presenting themselves , their lives and their practices through art.

Although the book primarily focuses on the traditional view of a self portrait, which is not at first glance where my practice lies, I found it’s contents so engaging and informative that I devoured it from cover to cover, whereas with some books this module I have had to focus on just reading the opening introduction to give me a broad overview of the work or theories engaged in in the book. This book however, was full of not just facts but real life narratives of how women have gone about producing art for centuries, and I found it engaging from start to finish. Borzello has written it in a really easy to follow and engaging way. I have also found that I am finding it much easier to read and understand academic books anyway after all the reading this module, so I do think it is a little bit of both, I am finding it easier, and it was written in a much more accessible way.

I found the sections on artists that have created self portraits of themselves at work in their studios the most relevant to my practice visually, but philosophically there were so many artists and their works that I aligned with. It’s hard not to see the strength of this book as an almost visual feminist manifesto, that these women have been presenting themselves and their art to the world in an at many times revolutionary and unheard of or unseen way, that is something that inspires me in my practice , as I believe firmly no-one has done what I am doing. They may of attempted variations of it , parts or small parcels of it, but my wider research during the MA is a huge body of work , that has never been attempted, and I believe has the potential to be revolutionary to certain people.

I have collated the quotes and work below that I felt resonated with me and my work most strongly .

Week 10 Seeing ourselves - women's self portraits 02.04.20
Week 10 Seeing ourselves – women’s self portraits 02.04.20

All quotes (Borzello; 2018)

“While it would be ridiculous to deny that men have dominated the field of self-portraiture, just as they have dominated the artistic profession , this history has hidden the fact that women have been there all along, thinking as hard as the men about how to reprisent themselves in paintings.” (pg 25)

“These are not themes that should be categorised as ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’, but rather as subjects that relate to women’s experiences as they juggle the plates marked ‘artist’ and ‘woman’ , trying to keep both spinning in the air at the same time.” (pg 38)

Fig 1, Marie Nicole Dumont, The artist at her occupation. c 1789
Fig 1, Marie Nicole Dumont, The artist at her occupation. c 1789
fig 2, mary ellen best the artist in her painting room
fig 2, mary ellen best the artist in her painting room

“Watercolour Artist Mary Ellen Best pictures herself at working her painting room at her mothers house in York. “

“its at her easel”

“Next to the window in order to catch the light.”

“her prints and sketchbooks are on the far side of the room. Best is an early example of a woman painter who uses her watercolours to document her life as others use a journal.”

“Her practice of mounting her personal work into albums was a forerunner of the family photograph album.” (pg 121)


(in reference to Louisa Paris.) “The originality of her four hundred watercolours lies in their completeness as an overview of a middle-class ladies life and travels. she includes herself in the pictures, a practice lost when photography took over visual record keeping before her marriage in 1840 . ” “two years later she holds her new baby while her toddler son takes his first steps in a doorway. In 1846 she sits with her husband at breakfast., while the children, now numbering three, are tended by the nursemaid.”

“Louisa Paris kept a watercolour record of the places where she stayed with her family int he south of England . In one of them she paints her own traces, the sketching tool, pallet, and parasol abandoned on the South Downs she did not know it but she was fitting into a tradition of absent self portraits.” (pg 122)


“Photographing oneself is the closest one can get to trapping the image that looks back from the mirror. It is painting without the element of time, decision making, or labour.” (pg 137)

Fig 3, John, Gwen. 1907-9. A corner of te artists room in Paris
Fig 3, John, Gwen. 1907-9. A corner of te artists room in Paris

“A room of one’s own. A twentieth century development o female self portraiture is the painting of the artists room, evidence of the importance of their own space to these women artists. A room of one’s own , Virginia Woold’s ” “published 1929” “visual evidence of it’s application” “in 1900 when Emeilie Charmy painted the first of her several ‘self-portraits’ of the rooms she worked in.” (pg 142/143)

“It is the nature of accounts like this to concentrate on change and advance, but, despite improved access to education, women were still hampered by patronising attitudes towards their talent, sticking power and rightful place, and had to be more determines than men if they wanted to follow an artistic career.” (pg 142)


“Children are no longer presented as adjuncts to the artist, as assistants (Mary Beale) or accessories (Elisabeth Vigee- Lebrun). The twentieth century brings respect for children – and respect for children’s art.

“Jean cooke ” “Self portrait in 1958 (Tate Britain), her son.” “toddled to the easel, picked up her brushes and added his own marks to his mothers painting. Rather than remove them, Cooke incorporated them into the final work.” (Pg 168)


“Neel” “believed that art is a form of history, and wanted to capture the era as well as the individual in her portraits.” (pg 173)

“Bolstered by the belief that the personal is political, women artists sat down to create art that expressed their feelings as women artists in a mans world, as women in a man’s world, and just as women.” (pg 184)

“The blurring between self portraiture and the art of ideas is a new extension of self-portraiture, As we have seen, women have always managed to get their concerns into their self portraits – consider Angelica Kauffman’s belt clasp with its male-female battle for supremacy. But these feminist artists are different in their willingness to put themselves to use in the service of a wider argument.” (pg 197)

“Although Emin’s work is autobiographical, she notes, ‘it goes beyond that. I start with myself and end up with the universe.” “Asked whether art had a part to play in society, she replies, ‘It should have, but it doesn’t. I think the problem is that artists are too content with making things that look nice. There should be something revolutionary about it. It should be totally new and creative, and it should open up doors for new thoughts and new experiences.” (Emin in Borzello pg 221)

“The variety of female self-portraits gives the lie tot he long-held conviction that women, whilst brilliant copyists, had no originality. Expected to fit in with what-ever contemporary notions of femininity held sway, they nonetheless managed to come up with striking images that boasted of their talent, spoke of their beliefs and displayed their grasp of the standards of the day.”(pg 232)

“The traditional self-portrait will survive, of course, and continue to fascinate as we try to see behind the eyes for clues to the secrets of it’s creator. But it will be joined by ever-more exciting images made as instillations, videos and whatever other form women choose to express their complexities of being female artists.” (pg 232)




Borzello, Frances. 2018. seeing ourselves, women’s self portraits. London ; Thames & Hudson.



The monstrous regiment of women. September 2018. Marie-Nicole Dumont: The Woman Artist in Eighteenth-Century France Available at  (accessed 02.04.2020)


Hubbard, Sue. 06.03.2009.  Great Works: A Corner Of The Artist’s Room In Paris (With Open Window)(1907-1909), Gwen John Available at (accessed 02.04.2020)



Fig 1, Marie Nicole Dumont, The artist at her occupation. c 1789

Fig 2, mary ellen best the artist in her painting room

Fig 3, John, Gwen. 1907-9. A corner of te artists room in Paris

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This blog is written as part of my studies on the Falmouth University photography ma, an accredited educational programme.