Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Catharina van Hemessen, Portrait Painter

Catharina van Hemessen (married 23 February 1554)


Catharina van Hemessen is "one of the first Flemish women artists recorded and the first for whom several certainly authentic works are known."* Although we have few details about her life, thirteen signed works survive.

Born about the year 1528, Catharina was the daughter of the influential Flemish painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen and his wife, Bárbara de Fevere, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Like most of her female contemporaries, Catharina was trained by her father, a master in the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp, where he also had his workshop. She began her career in her father's studio, assisting her father, an artist known in particular for his "multi-figured, abundantly detailed" religious genre paintings. 

self-portrait, Catharina van Hemessen,
dated to 1548 and indicating
her age
In 1551, Hemessen sent his two of his sons, Hans and Gilles, to train as painters in Italy, just as he himself seems to have done. (There is no documentary evidence of Jan Sander van Hemessen's time in Italy, but he is widely believed to have spent time there as a young man, and he is recognized for his "innovative" Italian-influenced style.)

Such a journey would have been impossible for a young woman, of course. But by the time her brothers were sent to Italy, Catharina van Hemessen was already producing her own original work. 

Catharina's earliest known painting is a portrait, a genre in which she seems to have specialized. In fact, it is a self-portrait--a self-portrait of the artist in the process of painting. In a Latin inscription, she both names herself as the artist and dates her painting: "EGO CATERINA DE/ HEMESSEN ME/ PINXI/ 1548." A second version of this painting,  a copy made by Catharina, adds her age: "ETATIS/SVAE/20"(this inscription suggests her year of birth, otherwise undocumented). 

At some point during the decade of the 1540s, she gained an influential patron, Mary of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. In 1555, Catharina is recorded as a "dame de compagnie" at the regent's court. 

Meanwhile, on 23 February 1554, Catharina married Kerstiaen de Moryn, who was soon to be named organist at the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. I have used this one certain date in Catharina van Hemessen's life--the date of her marriage--as the occasion for this post.

In 1556, when Mary of Austria "retired" from her role as regent and left the Low Countries, Catharina retained her place in the former regent's court and, with her husband, left for Spain. According to the Florentine merchant and writer Ludovico Guicciardini, who lived in Antwerp and whose 1567 Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi (Description of of the Low Countries) contains an enumeration of many contemporary Flemish artists, "this couple [Mary of Austria] took with her to Spain." Guicciardi also notes that the former regent granted an annuity to Catharina. In the words of the eighteenth-century English translation of Guicciaardini's Description, Mary of Austria "bequeathed a sufficient maintenance" to Hemessen.

Another 1548 signed painting
by Catharina van Hemessen.
The sitter's age is given as 22,
and may represent Hemessen's
older sister, Christina
After Mary of Austria's death in 1558, the couple returned to Antwerp, where they seem to have remained until 1561, when they relocated to the city of 's-Hertogenbosch, where Kerstiaen de Moryn had accepted a position as organist for the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Lady.

After 1565, no further details survive. As Anne Jensen Adams writes, "Catharina and her husband seem to have left the city [of s'Hertogenbosch] by 1565, and subsequently disappeared without a trace.

When he wrote about Catharina van Hemessen in 1567, Guicciardini names her as one of four "living female artists" in Antwerp, so it is possible she had returned to that city. Nothing more is known about her.

What survives is her work--thirteen signed work, nine portraits and four religious paintings. Of these, ten are dated between 1548 and 1552, a fact which has led modern historians (including Harris and Nochlin) to conclude that Hemessen may have given up painting when she was married. (And that her role at the Spanish court may have been in teaching painting.)

Interestingly, Catharina van Hemessen is mentioned in Giorgio Vasari's 1568 version of Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects)--but he includes her in his discussion of "excellent miniaturists." 

To see more of Catharina van Hemessen's surviving work, a good place to start is with the selection of images posted at ArtUK. I also recommend Ellen Moody's excellent overview and fascinating critique of Catharina van Hemessen's work (click here).

In addition, Anne Jensen Adams's 2005 review of Karolien De Clippel's 2004 Catharina van Hemessen (1528 - na 1567): Een monografische studie over een 'uytnemende wel geschickte vrouwe in de conste der schilderyen'  (unfortunately, for me, in Dutch) includes some biographical information, additional material about the surviving paintings, and some speculation about unattributed work.

*This quotation is from Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin's groundbreaking Women Artists, 1550-1950, the catalogue/history/collection of art plates that was published in connection with the first international exhibition of female artists, curated by Harris and Nochlin, and organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibition opened on 21 December 1976. The show featured the work of eighty-three artists from twelve countries, including Catharina van Hemessen.