Catharina van Hemessen

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Self portrait, 1548. This self-portrait may be the first self-portrait of an artist at work at the easel, regardless of gender.[1]

Caterina, or Catharina van Hemessen (1528 – after 1587) was a Flemish Renaissance painter. She is the earliest female Flemish painter for whom there is verifiable extant work, and is known for a series of small scale female portraits completed between the late 1540s and early 1550s.[2]

Van Hemessen is often given the distinction of creating the first self-portrait of an artist (of either gender) depicted seated at an easel. This portrait, created in 1548, shows the artist in the early stages of painting a portrait and is now part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel.[3] Other paintings by Hemessen are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and in the National Gallery, London.

A number of obstacles stood in the way of contemporary women who wished to become painters. Their training would involve both the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form, while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for 4–5 years, often beginning from the age of 9-15. For these reasons, female artists were extremely rare, and those that did make it through were typically trained by a close relative, in van Hemessen's case, by her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen.[4]


As was common with many Renaissance female painters, she was the daughter of a painter. Her father Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c. 1500-after 1563) was a prominent Mannerist painter in Antwerp. He was presumably her teacher.[5] Her success is demonstrated by her good standing in the Guild of St. Luke and her eventual position as the teacher of three male students.

Portrait of a Lady, c. 1551. Bowes Museum, Durham

Van Hemmessen was a very successful painter.[5] Van Hemessen gained an important patron in the 1540s in the person of Maria of Austria, who served as regent of the Low Countries on behalf of her brother Charles V. In 1554, she married Christian (or Chrétien) de Morien, an organist at the Antwerp Cathedral, which was at that time an important post. In 1556, when Maria resigned her post and returned to Spain, Catharina and her husband also moved, at the invitation of her patron, to Spain. Two years later, when Maria died, Catharina was given a sizeable pension for life. Catharina and her husband returned to Antwerp. She was mentioned in Guicciardini's Description of the Low Countries of 1567 as one of the living women artists.

She died after 1587.


Though she did create at least two religious paintings, she was mainly a portraitist.[6] She portrayed wealthy men and women often posed against a dark background. She is best known for a self-portrait (Kunstmuseum Basel). She inscribed the painting with the year, 1548, and her age, 20 years.[7]

Her portraits are characterized by their realism. The one self-portrait and the half a dozen other portraits that have been attributed to her are small, quiet pictures. The sitters, often seated, were usually seen against a dark or neutral ground. This type of framing and setting made for an intimate portrait.

There are no extant works later than 1554, which has led some historians to believe her artistic career might have ended after her marriage, which was a common occurrence in the case of female artists.[5]

Selected works[edit]



  1. ^ Frances Borzello, Seeing Ourselves: Women's Self-Portraiture 1998
  2. ^ Jones, 136
  3. ^ Kemperdick, 15
  4. ^ Kleiner, 406
  5. ^ a b c Heller, Nancy G. (1997). Women artists : an illustrated history (3rd ed. ed.). New York: Abbeville Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-7892-0345-6. 
  6. ^ . ISBN 0-7892-0345-6.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ Kleiner, 519


  • Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art, and Society, Thames and Hudson, London, 1990
  • Jones, Susan Frances. Van Eyck to Gossaert. London: National Gallery, 2011. ISBN 978-1-85709-504-3
  • Harris, Anne Sutherland and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Knopf, New York, 1976
  • Kemperdick, Stephan. The Early Portrait, from the Collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein and the Kunstmuseum Basel. Munich: Prestel, 2006. ISBN 3-7913-3598-7
  • Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Wadsworth, 2009. ISBN 0-495-57364-7

External links[edit]