Thursday, July 2, 2015

Laura Knight, Self-Portrait with Model

Laura Knight, Self-Portrait with Model, 1913

Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) was a major English artist who was one of the most successful and popular painters in Britain during her lifetime.  In 1936 she became the first woman to join the Royal Academy since founding members Angelica Kauffman (died 1807) and Mary Moser (died 1819).  Born in Derbyshire, Laura Johnson was the youngest of three daughters.  Her father died when she was a baby and the family struggled financially thereafter.  In 1889 she was sent to Paris to study art at an atelier, but she did not stay long.  Fortunately, Laura's mother, Charlotte, taught at the Nottingham School of Art and managed to secure her daughter a place when she was just thirteen.  After only two years, Laura was ready to take over her mother's teaching duties when she became ill.  At school she met Harold Knight, who was a very promising student, and decided the best way to progress was to copy his work.  The two became friends and married in 1903.  Some of Knight's earlier works reflect her own upbringing.  She soon became known for her landscapes and exteriors, as well as powerful and complex portraits.  Soon Knight was painting portraits of prominent entertainers like pianist Ethel Bartlett and wrestler/strongwoman Joan Rhodes.  She then became an important chronicler of World War II, depicting the women hard at work at home, as well as the Nuremberg Trials.  Self-Portrait with Model is one of Knight's most famous pieces.  Often referred to as simply "Self-Portrait" or "The Model", the painting is largely political in its subject matter.  At the time, women were not allowed to paint from live models in most British art schools, restricting them to casts or prior drawings. The painting is a clear challenge of the policy, as well as a deliberate provocation, with Knight demonstrating her own power.  The painting is also notable for its fascinating spatial relations; with the use of mirrors, Knight painted the scene to show both herself and the model (fellow artist Ella Naper) from the view of someone entering the room from behind.  It is also interesting to compare the model with the representation the Knight included, and note also the brush in her hand.  The work was initially well received, but the Royal Academy (unsurprisingly) refused to hang it, and soon negative critical reaction followed, even being called vulgar.  However, Knight remained proud of the painting and exhibited it throughout her career.

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