Caterina van Hemessen (Katharina van Hemmessen) was a highly successful painter.  Queen Mary of Hungary, is said to have been her biggest admirer. Van Hemessen married Christian de Morien in 1554, and then she ended her art career. Art historians say this is true because there is no evidence of any paintings by her after the date of her marriage.  It was customary for women to give up painting after they were married.  Queen Mary admired her talent so much that when the Queen died in 1558,  she left a sizable endowment for the couple, so they could live out their lives in comfort.

Caterina van Hemessen was born in 1527 in Antwerp, Belgium. Her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen was a well known Mannerist painter. Her father taught her to paint, she also helped him on many of his works. Van Hemessen painted portraits of  the wealthy women and men of her era. Her works are usually small pictures of people against a bland dark background.

Her self-portrait displays a very young, shy woman, that has a look of sadness upon her face. She holds a brush, pallet, and other painter's tools in her left hand, and is beginning to work on a picture, holding a fine brush carefully in her right hand.  This may be the first image of an artist at work done as a self-portrait. Her two paintings, entitled "Portrait of a Lady" and "Portrait of a Man" are similar to one another, and are rumored to actually be paintings of herself and her husband. Both paintings portray a thin man and woman who have a serious look about them.  The lady holds a small dog, and a rosary at her waist; while the man holds a sword. Both subjects appear to have the same sad expression seen in her earlier self-portrait.  There are ten signed and dated works by van Hemessen that are known to exist, they now reside in the National Gallery in London, and in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Caterina stopped painting after her marriage in 1554, as was customary for a women to do in that day.  Since she stopped painting in her twenties her work will most likely never reach its full artistic recognition. Her portraits are both charming, and have an appealing intimacy to them.

Van Hemessen's work includes several religious paintings based on historical events, with large groups of figures, these works were not as successful as her portraits. It is unknown if she created any paintings while living in Spain, researchers continue looking for any of her artwork that she may have done while living there.

Caterina died in 1587 in Antwerp at the age of 60 of natural causes. She lived comfortably throughout her life as Queen Mary had hoped.

There is not much information about Caterina available, as I found while researching her. It is sad that an artist with the talent and skill that she had, ended her painting career when she got married. I think she could have been one of the more famous artists of her time, had she continued painting.

Her artwork is beautiful, and it seems like the people in the portrait are never looking at you, as they are in many other paintings of that era.

There are few examples of her work online, Here are some pictures of her artwork:

  • Her self portrait
  • Portrait of a Lady
  • Portrait of a Man
  • A Lady With a Rosary
  • Young Woman Playing The Virginals

More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here

Source: Women Artists. 1st ed. : Ruggio Publishing, 1977.

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