Historically, women made portraits of other women to document family, express friendships, assert status and bestow patronage … and to establish professional artistic careers.

Through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women were denied access to the established system of art school training, based largely in the study of the male nude model. Gradually, it became acceptable for upper-class young ladies to learn the basics of sketching, drawing and painting, but women were discouraged from becoming serious about art: it was considered unladylike for any woman to achieve more than a limited proficiency. True ladies dabbled decorously. Their small artistic efforts represented a genteel cultural polish intended to make them shine as social and domestic ornaments.

Still, many women defied the odds, attaining high levels of accomplishment, whether as amateur artists or professionals. Portraiture offered an alternative path to success as an artist, without life drawing experience. Portrait themes relating to womanly virtues, like domesticity, helped allay moral concerns and were considered especially appropriate as ‘feminine’ subject matter.

Yet then, as now, many of these women were drawn to the portrait’s artistic possibilities. These artists chose to work within the genre in different ways, making it their own. By the mid-twentieth century, representations of the female body took on new symbolism and perspectives emerged from outside the western tradition.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that this varied selection of amateur and professional portraits, drawn from the collections of Library and Archives Canada and Glenbow, is not always quite as expected.

Library and Archives Canada is home to many of our country’s most important portraits. These historical and modernist works provide a unique visual history of Canada, interpreted on a human scale, through the faces of individuals, known or unknown, who have shaped and who continue to shape the history and culture of the nation. You can explore more of that collection at the online Portrait Portal.

As part of a multi-year collaboration with Library and Archives Canada, Glenbow will host a series of five portrait-themed exhibitions drawn from the collection of Library and Archives Canada. In some cases, portraits from Glenbow’s collection will augment the exhibitions. The first exhibition in this series was The Artist’s Mirror: Self-Portraits