Laura Knight with model, Ella Louise Naper (‘Self Portrait’) by Laura Knight

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[IMAGE] A white woman in a red standing with her back to us, in front of her part-finished painting of a nude model, who is posing in the background.
A self-portrait by Laura Knight, showing herself painting a model.
Laura Knight with model, Ella Louise Naper ('Self Portrait')
by Laura Knight
oil on canvas, 1913
overall: 60 x 50 1/4 in.; 1524 x 1276 mm
NPG 4839
Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images
On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Laura Knight (1877–1970) was a painter who was fascinated by modern life. In the early 1900s, it was difficult for women to work as artists, but she was determined to ‘do all that men could do’. She painted nudes at a time when it wasn’t considered ‘proper’ for women to do so, and successfully managed her own career, negotiating exhibition spaces and fair payment for her paintings.

Knight painted subjects that reflected her experiences of modern life, often focussing on working women. During the Second World War, she became an official War artist A select group of artists who were employed or commissioned by the government to produce works of art during war. . In this capacity, she painted the trials of former Nazi Belonging to or connected with the National Socialist Party, which controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. leaders after the war, in Nuremberg in Germany.

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] A white woman in a red standing with her back to us, in front of her part-finished painting of a nude model, who is posing in the background.
Laura Knight with model, Ella Louise Naper ('Self Portrait'), by Laura Knight, 1913

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Laura Knight shows herself painting in her studio.  
    • She stands with her back to us, next to her Canvas A strong, heavy, rough material on which artists paint their pictures. and in front of the model she is painting.
    • She has a paintbrush in her right hand. Although we can’t see her left hand, we can guess that she is holding a Paint palette A thin board with a hole for the thumb, used by an artist for mixing colours when painting. . 
    • Her head is turned to the side. This allows us to see her face and features in Profile The outline of a person's face when seen from the side, not the front. .
    • She is wearing a thick, red cardigan, a plain grey skirt and a black hat. We can also see a striped scarf or collar.
    • These look like practical, working clothes.
    • Her hat is more like the kind that men wore at the time, rather than women. She bought the cardigan from a Jumble sale A sale of second-hand clothes and other items, usually held to raise money for charity. , and it also appears in other works by her.
    • Her clothes are reminders of the more liberal lifestyle she was able to live as part of an artist community, away from the rigid society of the early 1900s.
    • We can see the model Knight is painting. The model is Knight’s friend Ella Louise Naper, who was also an artist.
    • Naper is undressed and stands on a low platform covered with a striped cloth. There is a screen behind her, draped in a red cloth.
    • We can also see the Canvas A strong, heavy, rough material on which artists paint their pictures. that Knight is painting.
    • Knight makes it clear that she is an artist by painting herself at work in her studio.
    • She challenges the passive way that women often appear in art by showing herself, a working woman, in control of what is happening. 
    • By showing herself painting a Nude A human figure that is not wearing any clothes. Life model A person who poses for an artist while completely or partially naked. , Knight is also making a statement. Nudes weren’t considered a ‘proper’ subject for women to paint in the early 1900s, and women were not allowed to attend life drawing classes.
    • The model’s pose shows Knight’s technical skill in painting the muscular structure of the model’s body.
    • Knight used Oil paint A type of paint where the pigment (colour) is mixed with plant oil. on Canvas A strong, heavy, rough material on which artists paint their pictures. for the self-portrait. 
    • The painting-in-progress in the self-portrait provides some clues about Knight’s technique.  
    • It shows that she initially created an underpainting to map out the composition, using thin paint and loose brushstrokes.  
    • She then added different Tone A shade of a colour. , roughly indicating the shadows on the model’s back, then refining the shapes and building up the colours and textures.
    • She also used Negative space The space that surrounds or is in between figures and objects. – she has used the red backdrop in the painting-in-progress to outline the model’s shape. 
    • Knight used small dabs of paint to create the texture of her cardigan. She used broad, loose brushstrokes for the backcloth and the sketchy, unfinished painting. 
    • On the model’s body Knight has used long, loose brushstrokes and dabs of paint to suggest the soft flesh and smaller, Hatching An artistic technique used to create tonal or shading effects by drawing (or painting or scribing) closely spaced parallel lines. brushstrokes for more muscular areas. 
    • Knight’s face is more highly finished than the rest of the painting, drawing the viewer’s attention to it.
    • Knight has divided the background into a series of rectangles. These are created by the screen, the wall, the backcloth, the striped rug, and the edges of the Canvas A strong, heavy, rough material on which artists paint their pictures. that Knight is working on. 
    • This grid of horizontal and vertical lines contrasts with the curved shape of the model.
    • Knight is in the foreground on the left, which balances the figure of the model to the right. 
    • Her presence in the foreground helps create a sense of perspective The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. . She is larger than the model as she is closer to us.   
    • The bright, bold reds and oranges make the painting look vibrant. 
    • The strong red of Knight’s cardigan and the bright orangey-red of the backcloth contrast with the pale colours used to paint the Nude A human figure that is not wearing any clothes. figure, providing balance.
    • Knight makes the model’s skin and flesh look realistic through her use of more subtle colours. The dabs of pink on the model’s bottom, for example, make it look as if she has been sitting down or has just removed her clothes. She looks like a real person rather than the idealised ‘nude’ seen in traditional art.
    • Knight’s black hat and shadowed face are silhouetted against the pale wall, immediately drawing our attention to her. 
    • The painting is a relaxed scene of two women working. One is painting and the other is working as a model.
    • It is also an intimate picture of two friends.
    • They seem comfortable in each other’s company and focussed on the job in hand – making art.  
My inner self continues to say even today – go on, keep on trying something different.
Laura Knight speaking towards the end of her life, aged about 90.

Who was Laura Knight?

  • Laura Knight was born in Derbyshire. She lived with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
  • Her mother taught art to local children. As a strong working woman, she was an important role model for Knight from an early age.
  • Knight went to Nottingham School of Art aged just 13 – the youngest student the school had ever had.
  • She was interested in experiencing and painting modern life, often focussing on working women. She travelled around the country to find and paint her subjects, including touring with a circus.
  • During the Second World War, Knight worked as an official War artist A select group of artists who were employed or commissioned by the government to produce works of art during war. . She painted women working in the armed forces and other wartime roles.
  • After the war ended, she painted the trials of former Nazi Belonging to or connected with the National Socialist Party, which controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. leaders in Nuremberg in Germany, providing an important insight into this significant moment in history.
  • Her success as an artist was recognised in her lifetime. She was made a Dame A title given to a woman by the British king or queen, awarded for a special achievement. in 1929 and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts A British institution headed by well-known artists who are elected as members. Its building in London houses an art school and space for exhibitions. in 1936.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • The scale and confidence of the painting is unique for a self-portrait by a woman of this period. It reflects Knight’s confidence as a highly skilled artist at the beginning of a brilliant career.
  • By showing herself painting a Nude A human figure that is not wearing any clothes. , Knight is making a defiant statement about herself and her work.
  • Throughout art history, the male Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. has influenced how women’s bodies have been represented. Male artists have generally painted female nudes for male viewers. 
  • The nude in Knight’s self-portrait is very different. She is shown as human – a naked woman, a friend of the artist, not an objectified female body presented for male scrutiny and pleasure.

Questions

  1. What is your impression of Laura Knight from this self-portrait? Why do you think this?
  1. How did Laura Knight challenge the male-dominated art establishment with this self-portrait?
  1. How might Laura Knight’s self-portrait inspire your artwork?