Lighter Than Her Lace: A Crown of Borrowed Self-Portraits
1 Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait at the Clavichord, 1561
Her choice: Depict two women's faces, old
in shadow, young in light with fingertips
arranged expert on keys, as she will hold
her brushes in the Spanish court, paint lips
and eyes and gowns of Isabella, queen
and confidante. The painter-sitter here—
a knowing gaze, white lace collar, serene
and chaperoned by age, common, austere,
a witness to the making, neither muse
nor menace. Woman, elder, half in dark,
we do not see your hands. Perhaps you use
them for creating too. You leave your mark
off-canvas, yet within. This song of self unites
crone, gifted girl, a clavichord's keys, blacks and whites.
2 Clara Peeters, Vanitas Self-Portrait, c. 1610-20
No clavichord. The only black and white
a pair of dice, a five and three faced out
to viewers of her self with gilt still-life,
bouquet in bloom, save one, listless petals about
to drop among the coins, the gems, fine tray
tipped, toppled, not upright. And she, in pearls
at throat, both wrists, red hair, shuns, turns away
from opulence that's half her crafted world,
beguiling then and now, ensnaring us
in borrowing or gambling debt. Her dice
no accident, no fluke. But what purpose
this bubble she pretends eludes her eyes?
Orb, drifting, sheerer, lighter than her lace.
Her fleeting globe—and ours—time will erase.
3 Angelica Kauffman, Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting, 1791
Time will erase her quandary. Now she prays,
dreams, seeks the counsel of a priest who hears
dilemmas every day. He pauses, says,
My child, your songs do echo in God's ears
and yet your palette gives enduring praise.
The climb toward God is steep, uneven, long.
While journeying, clasp hands with Art always.
And so she does. In Rome, at 50, strong,
and wife to Zucchi, fellow painter, she
returns to ache of youth, unknowing place:
A red-gowned Music tugs one hand tightly,
fresh garlands on her brow, sweet yearning face,
while Painting, urgent, right arm free, points up a hill.
Angelica, in white, between the two, stands still.
4 Edouard Louis Dubufe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, 1857 *
* Though not a self-portrait per se, this work includes a bull painted by Rosa Bonheur, a celebrated animal painter. Bonheur often dressed as a man in public.
We two stand still—absurd!—yet I prefer
this pair to his first sketch: Bonheur idle
at oak table. Cliché! Inferior,
mon dieu, to my new pose: Bonheur with bull.
No one disputes my genius bringing beasts
alive by brushstroke, rendering each mane,
each hoof, horn, nostril, burr—deft expertise.
Still, inquiry demands disguise. I feign
a manly stride in trousers, cravat, cloak
to venture out to slaughterhouse, pierce through
banalities—limp, ladylike—peel back
smooth surfaces to animal sinew.
His table, I replace, of course. Instead,
my legacy: male creature's muscled head.
5 Laura Knight, Self-Portrait, 1913
"How holy is the human body when bare of other than the sun."
—Laura Knight, The Magic of a Line, 1965
My legacy? Hmm. My sketchbooks—penciled nudes—
will not survive the Cornwall damp. Each page
will gum and stink of mildew. Platitudes,
as well, will curdle for some years: Outrage!
Indecent! How dare she? Yet I must dare
to paint my self, hair tucked inside black hat,
my face in profile, gazing at her bare
and holy body—Ella, friend, palms at
her skull, feet steady on striped cloth, her spine
unclothed, unbent. My model will not live
as long as I. She will not praise light nine
decades, mourn two world wars. But we will give
beyond this red of sweater, cream and pink
of skin. What lasts? Discovering, I think.
6 Alice Neel, Nude Self-Portrait, 1980
Dear Alice, kin, what lasts? Your daughters die.
Firstborn, diphtheria, the second, suicide.
One lover slashes fifty canvases, and I
admit even this sonnet strays, threatens to hide
in idly Googling sites that document
desertions, opium, shoplifting food.
Bouquets, but questions for you, Alice, shoulders bent
at 80, glasses crooked, Mother Hubbard nude
on blue striped chair, your irises this shade
of azure too. I cheer your nakedness
and try to read your face. Have you conveyed
some wisdom of the very old? Or wariness
may simply be your signature. Each face
you paint—not quite alarmed, just shy of grace.
7 Carol Greene, Self-Portrait, 2009
You paint not troubled souls but harmony:
Calm, bare-armed girl, first flute. Gray-goateed man
in white shirt, humming, burps a grandbaby.
You smile in aqua turtleneck. I can
imagine how you tucked your photograph
beside this canvas, looked long, listened, chose
a slender brush, embarked on song of self:
One shadowed cheek, one bright. Peach hues for nose.
Reflected glints in oval lenses. Eyes—
like Alice's, like mine—the useful blue
of ocean, sky, and wing that shimmer, rise,
and blur beyond your studio, same blue
as backdrop cradling white crown, each wrinkle, fold
of flesh. New, lilting hymn to women's faces, old.