Nowadays, selfies have become a popular occurrence on social media news feeds and they depict people taking perfect poses and smiling or laughing. Selfies portray the purest depiction of a person. Such a picture can make a strong social statement and it communicates more effectively than most writing ever could. In a similar fashion, self-portraiture serves as a way of artists meditating on the world around them and the objects in it. These portraits capture the features of the artists perfectly. Moreover, they enable the creator to channel their beliefs and morals into a single portrait that is both revealing and revolutionary. These portraits often end up memorializing the creator and their life story. Self-portraits are pieces of art which are both personal and relatable as they give the audience a glimpse into the creator’s mood at the specific time, hence, providing a chance for common ground among the two parties. Therefore, self-portraits created by women from around the world at different times are not only art; but also an avenue for voices of other females in generations to come. In this context, the self-portraits of three female artists, Mary Cassatt, Alice Bailly, and Georgette Chen, who created their works between 1860 and 1960 are examined.

Mary Cassatt was an American Impressionist who spent the majority of her career in Paris, Europe. Her exposure to the work of Degas served as a turning point for her art since she had previously felt stifled by tradition. Cassatt believed that Degas’ work was for the select few implying that a certain sophistication was needed to fully appreciate his creations. Thus, she readily accepted his invitation to become an Impressionist after she was rejected by the Paris Salon. Cassatt described her immense joy when she was asked to join the Impressionists’ group saying that she “could now work in absolute independence without troubling herself with the eventual problem of a jury.”[1] The two artists communicated frequently after Cassatt’s initiation and their vibrant exchange can be witnessed through Cassatt’s numerous appearances in Degas’ artwork. Furthermore, the two artists also showcased the other’s work since Degas was able to capture the cooperative nature of their friendship. As an Impressionist, Cassatt defined her art through women meaning her paintings offered a new vision of facts which would have otherwise been ignored.[2] She created realistic but inspiring images of various females which greatly revealed the scope of Cassatt’s perceptions. Her paintings mainly consisted of women shown as independent parties, humans who enjoy the company of others, and individuals who can pursue interests that do not revolve around pleasing others.

Cassatt created her watercolor self-portrait around 1880 which was a year after she became an Impressionist. In the painting she is dressed fashionably, but she does not portray herself as an object of admiration. Instead, she returns the audience’s gaze as a way of reversing expectations. Her costume helps incorporate details about Cassatt’s economic and social situation. The fashionable business-like dress addresses the financial autonomy of Cassatt and refutes the adage that every female belongs in the kitchen.[3] Cassatt’s portrait suggests that she is appraising the viewer –  a non-traditional way of looking at portraits. The strokes of green in the right background of the painting prove that Cassatt used paper in her portrait. On the other hand, the rich yellow wash to her left represents the sunlight that pours over her shoulders, and then casts a shadow onto her face. Cassatt also used bold strokes in her drawing to depict her mood at the time, and to show motion which celebrates her modern style and rapid touch. The free brushwork depicted in the portrait is closely related to Degas’ work, thus, it serves as further proof of their collaboration. Cassatt used this portrait to further explore the diverse roles of women, for instance, as a mother, a modern woman, and, in this case, a professional painter.

Another female artist famous for her self-portrait is Alice Bailly. In 1904, Bailly left her home country Switzerland and moved to France where she began her career as an artist.[4] Bailly became friends with many painters in Paris and adopted their avant-garde modern style of painting. When she began to exhibit her earlier wood cravings in France, the Fauvism style became popular in Paris. She was, hence, intrigued by the use of intense colors and dark outlines by Fauve artists as she considered the move bold. Fauve artworks also had emphatically unrealistic use of space and anatomy which was another element that interested Bailly. Since Bailly was constantly conducting stylistic experiments, she quickly adopted her variation of Fauvism. In Paris, Bailly was a regular hostess to other artists which exposed her to numerous art movements in Europe although she did not identify with any of them. But, during World War 1, Bailly went back to her home nation and began to create wool paintings. These were artworks where short strands of yam were used to imitate brush strokes in a traditional painting. Bailly’s style, therefore, become a combination of many approaches although her self-portrait echoed the Fauve style of painting. She became famous for painting intuitively as she would incorporate multiple styles in one artwork as she painted.

Her self-portrait takes a three-quarter pose where she is at the foreground. Bailly occupies the foreground as she used drab hues to color herself. One of her thin and elongated hands holds a brush while the other appears to droop vertically.[5] Their opposite positions offer pictorial opposition to the viewer. Moreover, their different vectors are further emphasized by the middle ground of this self-portrait which is decorated by dabs of mixed colors and behind her head, one can see a halo of green and red. Both of these elements offer an interesting look into the Renaissance tradition. Their use in the portrait contrasts with the other non-traditional styles employed by Bailly. One half of Bailly’s face is in a shadow and is defined while the other half is half-sketched, hence, the three-quarter pose. This contrast suggests that Bailly felt she was more fully realized in the light both metaphorically and literally. Additionally, the one defined eye in the painting looks away from the audience making it hard to interact and identify with the portrait.[6] Furthermore, one side of Bailly’s figure reveals the room but the remaining half is a blend of multiple colors. This contrast suggests that Bailly best portrayed her vibrancy and joy through her artwork rather than through her persona. Consequently, Bailly’s portrait incorporates abstraction versus definition prompting the audience to evaluate which Bailly values more; her work or herself.

Lastly, Georgette Chen’s parents were international antique dealers meaning she was constantly traveling when she was young. Therefore, her various dispositions on a cultural and social level were constantly depicted in her works of art. She finally settled and taught art in Singapore from 1954 and is known for her extensive influence on her students. Chen employed her notions in her work and was a pioneer artist as she represented “major directions in aesthetic exploration in Singapore.”[7] Chen received numerous awards as she was an outstanding artist and greatly influenced the artists of her time. All of Chen’s works bear the signature ‘Chen’ which symbolizes her roots in Singapore. She painted portraits and landscapes but her most significant achievements were in designing still-life paintings.[8] Chen would often paint vegetables and fruits as subjects and her work was mainly influenced by her tropical surroundings. Chen used her paintings to transform tradition into art as a way of communicating with the locals and expressing the effect her surroundings had on her. However, she was not involved in politics thus, none of the political contexts influenced her work. Moreover, she did not subscribe to the beliefs of any art group which made her an independent and strong-minded female artist who was aloof from the art scene. She created her self-portrait a few years after her husband passed away.

Chen’s self-portrait is characterized by a sense of detachment in the use of canvas and lines. She used minimal lines to outline her face and hair, and barely included any colors while differentiating her face from the portrait’s background. Nevertheless, this careful use of elements effectively captures likeness and also prompts the viewer’s psychological responses. The portrait also showcases Chen’s mastery of the pastel as a medium of art as her expression is much softer unlike her earlier self-portraits.[9] Her painting is deliberately created to leave minimal space for the backdrop as her face occupies the plane of the portrait. The enlarged scale of Chen’s face makes the portrait interesting as the audience makes very intimate contact with her while viewing the picture. Additionally, Chen adds to her mystique through the exclusive collar around her neck and her elegantly-pinned hair. Furthermore, she appears calm through the subtle highlights and shadows used as they further show her delicate facial features. Her brush strokes are unrestricted and minimally fragmented which proves her loyalty to the French salon way of painting. Lastly, her reserved expression is a show of vulnerability but her intense gaze captures the audience as she appears aloof to their gaze. As a result, the viewer sympathizes with her apparent vulnerability but is also confronted by her intense scrutiny.

In conclusion, Mary Cassatt, Alice Bailly, and Georgette Chen are examples of famous female artists who created their self-portraits as part of their work. Cassatt admired Degas’ work and her artwork blossomed once she became an Impressionist. Naturally, her self-portrait followed Degas’ style while challenging the patriarchal notion that females’ roles are only confined to the kitchen. Also, Bailly identified as a sole artist and often created her style by using a union of common art styles. Her self-portrait is, hence, a combination of multiple styles, and prompts the viewer to analyze Bailly’s use of abstraction. Lastly, Chen was an art teacher who significantly influenced her students’ perceptions about art. Her self-portrait sets an aloof but intense tone as Chen appears vulnerable but fierce.




“Self Portrait.” Roots. July 03, 2018. https://roots.sg/learn/collections/listing/1026023.

Bertman, Sandra. “Self-Portrait Bailly, Alice.” NYU Langone Health. January 26, 2006. http://medhum.med.nyu.edu/view/10407.

Chia, Jane. “Georgette Chen (1906-1993), a pioneer artist.” Feminist Studies 25, no. 3 (1999): 671-677.

Perry, Gillian. Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-garde: Modernism and Feminine Art, 1900 to the Late 1920s. Manchester University Press, 1995.

Yeh, Susan Fillin. “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women.” Art Journal 35, no. 4 (1976): 359-363.

[1]                      1. Susan Fillin Yeh. “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women.” Art Journal 35, no. 4 (1976), 359.

[2]                      2. Ibid.

[3]                      3. Ibid., 360.

[4]                      4. Gillian Perry. Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-garde: Modernism and Feminine Art, 1900 to the Late 1920s. (Manchester University Press, 1995), 16.

[5]                      5. Sandra Bertman, “Self-Portrait Bailly, Alice.” NYU Langone Health (January 26, 2006), http://medhum.med.nyu.edu/view/10407.

[6]                      6. Ibid.

[7]                      7. Jane Chia. “Georgette Chen (1906-1993), a pioneer artist.” Feminist Studies 25, no. 3 (1999), 671.

[8]                      8. “Self Portrait.” Roots. July 03, 2018. https://roots.sg/learn/collections/listing/1026023.

[9]                      9. Ibid.