Man, I felt depressed reading these books with their narratives of struggle, misogyny, marginalisation, being overlooked and being always on the outside looking in. Or on the walls looking on. All books about women artists must wag a finger at Johann Zoffany’s group portrait ‘The Academicians of the Royal Academy’ (1771-2). Here come the boys, all breeches and palettes, and, there, where you might easily miss them, are the two women members, the only ones, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman, reduced to pictures on a wall. It’s always told as if it were an insult. Reframe the picture, shift the story. Moser and Kauffman might have looked at one another — and at all the lady painters who didn’t make the cut — and thought in quiet triumph: ‘We’re in.’
Gwen John and Paula Modersohn-Becker inspire the best chapters, with useful summaries of their careers animated less obstructively than before by Higgie’s determined imaginings. There are even some welcome discoveries in the list, artists about whom little has previously been announced — the Russian impressionist Marie Bashkirtseff; Helene Schjerfbeck from Finland; Nora Heysen, another Higgie compatriot from Australia.
However, these less familiar additions, fresher though they are, fall well short of tipping the book into the useful category. As far as self-portraiture goes, the only truly convincing likeness here is of Higgie herself.
Group biographies are extremely difficult to pull off successfully: the danger is that the narrative will seem hurried and superficial, and that the connections between its subjects, in as much as they exist at all, will feel forced and contingent. In theory, The Mirror and the Palette is my ideal book. I could hardly be more interested in its subject. But I’m afraid that both these problems are apparent here. Scooting dutifully over territory that will already be very familiar to many readers, Higgie strains to justify the way she has bunched together artists who have relatively little in common. Somewhat desperately, she keeps asking if this artist ever met that artist, or even knew of her work, and then answering her own question with the words: “We don’t know."