Caterina Van Hemessen – A Flemish Portraitist of Renaissance Age & Realist Flavor

Flemish Renaissance painter Caterina van Hemessen was born in 1528. She was the daughter of famous Northern Renaissance painter Jan Sanders van Hemessem (1500-66), who was well known in Antwerp for his Mannerist works. An established portrait painter, he began to train Caterina at a very young age. As a result, she grew up to be a brilliant portraitist and Renaissance painter.

Getting portraits made was then a popular trend among the elite Netherlanders. The small Realist portraits Caterina made were generally for personal use with the subject seated or posing. These portraits never hinted on the surrounding areas and were usually painted on neutral or dark backgrounds. Caterina even made a ‘Self Portrait’ in 1948. This painting displayed her sitting in the front of her easel against a dark background holding a paintbrush, palette, and a maulstick in her hands. In the picture, it seems as if she has just shortly interrupted her work to glance at her viewer. She put her name, age, and the year on the painting. The self-portrait was the first known portrait of an artist sitting at an easel.

Caterina van Hemessen’s talent had earned her a good reputation at the Guild of St Luke and she eventually became a teacher of three male students. Queen Maria of Austria (1505-58, wife of Louis II of Hungary) who served as a regent in the Low Countries, became a great patron of Caterina in the 1540’s. Meanwhile, in 1554, Caterina married Christian de Morien, an organist at the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. The painter had a very special relationship with Queen Maria, which lasted for her lifetime. In 1556, when the Queen resigned from her post and returned to Spain, Caterina and her husband accompanied her. Queen Maria died in 1558, but she left a sizeable amount for the artist for a comfortable life. After her death, she returned to Antwerp along with her husband.

Caterina’s ‘Portrait of a lady’ (1551), ‘Portrait of a Lady in 16th Century Dress’ (1551), and ‘Young Woman Playing the Virginals’ (1548) are some of her most elegant works. Her name was mentioned in Italian writer & merchant Lodovico Guicciardini’s (1521-89) book ‘Description of the Low Countries’ (1567). The artist’s last works belong to the year 1554. It is therefore, believed that she stopped painting after she got married (a common custom for the women of the time). Caterina van Hemessen died after 1587.