Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Invisible Women…a group self-portrait in words

Dedicated to all the women in art, of a certain age, 
whom we have and have not met at the Portrait Society Conferences.

Therese Schwartze Self Portrait
I am the thick bespectacled woman at the bar with the fire in her belly.

Sporting sensible business attire, I speak intelligently of the technical details of art making and can’t stop staring at the insanely delicious structure of your nose.

I sit in the unreserved back tables at the awards banquet, firmly zipped into my gala-worthy finery, spilling cleavage front and back, and I want to grab you in a headlock, knock you down and paint you…hard!

My cane, my orthopedic shoes and I and have vigilantly stood guard over my artistic vision for the better part of the last 50 years…protecting it with inner peace, a passionate voice and force if necessary.

Lady Laura Alma Tadema The Bible Lesson

I came of artistic age during an era of portrait painting blight.  By night I hatched secret plots with realistic eyes and noses in the shadows of artistic institutions.  By day I pasted type to board using hot wax and aspired to someday drawing laundry soap packages like the male artists in the next room. I grew up painting people, but if I was lucky to be in the company of artists, I found no mentors, little instruction, and very few kindred spirits.

Far from the coasts, I grew up in a Portrait Society of One. I devoured what knowledge I could from forgotten black and white Velasquez reproductions in dusty library-sale books…praying the next page would hold a color plate or a detail.

My painting grew out of this desert with influences from the masters doled out by the art gods with a stingy eye dropper; a local Sargent show that, for a month became my daily happy hour; a 12 hour bus ride to the Metropolitan in New York for a two hour artgasm; and then there was the serendipitous stumble of a lifetime into a room full of Egon Scheiles in Vienna and a house full of Zorn in Sweden. Who were these artists and why, with all my art training had I never heard of them?

Artemesia Gentileschi Allegory of Painting

I have worshipped at the altar of actual Rembrandts, Velasquez and Vermeers because, when I came of age there was no internet…we really knew nothing of portraiture except for what had made it into books and museums. My favorite artists were the dead ones…and of course, the illustrators…now THEY could paint a face, but one didn’t speak of Norman Rockwell in polite art company.

And my favorite women artists were…um…Mary Cassatt. We were taught that she painted babies and mothers because of her longing to have children of her own. Even then I knew the only reason she COULD paint them was because she DIDN’T have any of her own…and as a woman, the world of home and family was one of the only she had access to paint.

Mary Cassatt Nursing her Child
I came of age when Impressionism was the closest thing to Realism that could be taught by a reputable art institution. And even that was quickly abandoned for Abstract Expressionism, and then if you were serious about painting, for pure Abstraction.

Ironically, if you bucked that path, you were reactionary…not rebellious and cool whatsoever. Even in my art youth, I’m sure I was considered every bit the dowdy middle-aged lady in spectacles you see before you today because I painted people…and they looked more or less like people.

Anne Ancher A Funeral

But here I am, many years later at the Portrait Society Conference, and at my age I don’t paint nearly as well as the twenty twenty-something Finalists (not a typo, at the Portrait Society Awards there are twenty artists whose paintings have been chosen as finalists, and many of them are in their 20s). Their youthful paintings glow like the Rembrandts that I have been memorizing for 20, 30, 40 years.

Lilian Wescott Hale Ziffy in Bed
I believe they do realize how lucky they are to have their immense talent and drive today and not 30 years ago. Today there are Academies and Ateliers that burst with instruction and inspiration for them to launch brilliant careers painting people. And there is a growing art world that embraces realism to welcome them. Seeing what these youthful masters paint and trying to learn, beg, borrow and steal how they have achieved their miracles, well, it pours gasoline on that belly fire of mine.

And now, it would seem, the time for painting people has come again. And, since the young have adopted this passion as their own, there is a strong headwind for a movement. At the Portrait Society I am surrounded by hundreds of kindred spirits and inspiration by the bucketload, but I’m thinking maybe the younger artists don’t actually see me…and unless by some lucky twist of cyber fate they have glanced at one of my facebook posts, they haven’t seen my work either.

Elizabeth Nourse The Little Sister

Nonetheless, the time for me to paint my people has come. I’ve raised my kids, I’ve saved some money, and, health, safety and caring for those I love notwithstanding, I’ve got 20, 30, 40 years ahead of me for this epic journey.

I am the bespectacled and thick lady with the fire in her belly and I am in the process of conquering the world…one painted soul at a time, and I will do so until the end of my time.

And maybe, my inspiring youthful peers at the next Portrait Society Conference will actually see me next year and know that I am on the same passionate people-painting journey they are on, but maybe they will also remember that I’ve been on it since well before there was even a path.


A special thank you to the Art Renewal Center for providing the image for Lady Laura Alma Tedema, to @Linda Crank who compiled so many wonderful images by female painters on her facebook page, and to @Nancy Bea Miller, who writes the Women in the Act of Painting blog from which I lifted the Aremesia Gentileschi painting.

Cecilia Beaux Ethel Page…this painting is just one of the many reasons why we really like Cecilia Beaux!

Written by Judy Takács.

Judy, a painter of people who has gained recognition for her Chicks with Balls project, is also the Chair of New Media Relations for the Cecilia Beaux Forum of the Portrait Society of America. And, no, this is not autobiographical, but it contains bits from her life as well as the lives of the many women artists whom she HAS met over the years.


  1. Oh, my goodness, can I ever identify with these sentiments. Brilliant.

    1. Thank you Laurel…me too! Minus the cane and orthopedic shoes most of it is me…

  2. This is great, great sense of humor and sensibility. Thanks for expressing it. Debbie

  3. Just seeing this now. Judy, I can relate to every word!