I think it will be beating a dead horse at this point to talk about the lack of diversity in the National Portrait Gallery, but I guess I have to a little bit, so sorry horsey. Truthfully, the whole politically correct, inclusive way of thinking about representation is a late 20th century idea. Until that time, when the movement towards serious examination of who is telling/included in the historical narrative was underway, the rich white male’s story was the story, and if it was questioned, it wasn’t questioned openly. So, it was no surprise to me to see walls covered in portraits of the aristocracy and the very famous movers and shakers, and to see no portraits of the poor, lower classes, or racial minorities. (It’s important to note that portraits were mainly done by commission, and to sit for a portrait was time consuming. The lower classes wouldn’t have been able to afford or have the leisure time to have their portraits painted.)
I was, however, surprised by the number of portraits of women I saw. Still not as many as men, but much more than I was expecting. One portrait in particular that caught my attention was the self-portrait of Mary Beale.
Mary Beale, by Mary Beale, oil on canvas circa 1665 (Image from the National Portrait Gallery website)
I was immediately drawn to the richness and depth of the color (this is much more apparent in person). The draping of the Beale’s crimson and steely-plum silk dress suggests a solid, strong body beneath. Her expression is self-assured, yet humble, and she appears competent and adept. After admiring the painting for purely aesthetic reasons, I was even more interested when I read the accompanying text.
Beale worked as a professional painter from the mid-1650s, specializing in portraiture. She was the first Englishwoman to become a portrait painter of real distinction. A daughter of a Suffolk clergyman, by age 27 Beale was a very much in-demand portraitist, particularly for the clergy. Beale’s husband Charles, whom she married at age 19, was also a painter, and he acted as a studio assistant to Beale as well as kept records of all of her commissions. In the self-portrait above, a painter’s palette hangs on the wall in the background, referencing her profession, and she holds in her hand a canvas depicting her two sons, Bartholomew (1656-1709) and Charles (1660-1726).
It was so satisfying to see in the National Portrait Gallery a portrait of woman who was valued for something more than royal or aristocratic blood, or being a wife or mistress to someone of royal or aristocratic blood. How incredibly progressive, in the 17th century no less, for a woman to be honored and admired for her work as something other than being a madonna or a whore. To me, Mary Beale resembles quite closely the “ideal” modern woman. She was a wife and mother, but she was also a respected, talented, accomplished career woman, and that is what takes the historical precedence.
Schubert, Gudrun. “Beale, Mary.” In The Oxford Companion to Western Art, edited by Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e213 (accessed September 20, 2010).