A standing young woman shown from the knees up wearing a crown and a dress decorated with fur and jewels

What can portraits reveal about their subjects? 

The following digital exhibition explores this question through 10 paintings and prints from the Norton Simon collections that represent women from various social and cultural contexts in 17th-century Europe. These women actively participated in shaping their own images, but their roles are often overlooked in favor of the male artists who depicted them.

Portraits were a privilege of wealthy patrons, who commissioned paintings of themselves and of family members in order to display socially desirable qualities. Portrayals of women tended to emphasize beauty, fertility and modesty, rather than the professional, intellectual and financial successes celebrated in representations of men. Nevertheless, elite women exercised control over the process of being depicted, communicating their preferences to artists and rejecting finished portraits that did not suit their desires.

Outside of formal portraiture, in which a woman was depicted as herself, women who were affiliated with artists, such as Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, also served as models. Saskia was an important contributor to Rembrandt’s creative practice and appeared frequently in the guise of goddess or saint, her features often recognizable.

The portraits in this exhibition present an interpretive challenge, as few written documents record the lived experiences of most of the depicted women. It is rather their images, forged in collaboration between artist and subject, that are primary sources for understanding their values, ambitions and self-perceptions.