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This exhibition of women's self-portraits is not, as its title may suggest, concerned with who is the fairest of them all. It is about what these women think they look like, how they wish to be perceived and how they have achieved this through their art.

The portraits proclaim the artists' individuality, their personal style, their work and their independence. These proud images imbued with history and character act as mirrors to the soul of each artist and encourage the viewer to enter a visual dialogue with them. Some of the portraits are dramatic and forceful, others quiet and
unpretentious, but all testify to the individuality of their creators. The relationship between their choice of media and their use of light, colour, shape and form becomes part of an expressive, self-defining creative identity and, as is perhaps the essence of the self-portrait, communicates a personally-produced aesthetic statement.

These works reflect the time in which they were made, alerting us to specific points in history and suggesting not only the individual's emotional temperament, but also their social position. Mary Beale's self-portrait, the earliest here, is a candid and
succinct statement of her dual role as mother and painter. It contrasts strongly with that of Paule Vézelay, with her coquettish pose, painted with an opalescent palette and in a Cubist manner. Both portraits represent a period style and display the
competence of the artist: this as they return our gaze is their legacy. Some of the
portraits here include artistic paraphernalia; others indicate success or status by
concentrating on clothing, interiors or simply imply a mood by employing disguise, pose, gesture or a particular expression.

The self-portrait is also an artist's most personal form of self-promotion, a controlled advertisement and a bid to be remembered for eternity. Self-portraits are perhaps the elite sector of the portrait genre, for although they repeat the conventions of
traditional portraiture, displaying a gamut of traits from symbolism to allegory, they are rarely commissioned and thus provide the artist with the flexibility and freedom of being her own model.

For the first time, self-portraits by women in the National Portrait Gallery's collection are displayed together, alongside important loans and new works.

Visit From Your Armchair

Self-portrait as My Father from the series Encounter  by Silvia Rosi © Silvia Rosi

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Margaret Thatcher by Spitting Images Productions Ltd painted plastic, 1985

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David Hockney: Drawing from Life

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