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How I portrayed my Forgotten Foremothers

When you look at this series of portraits, you wouldn’t think I have a big love for abstract art. However, the last couple of years I felt I needed to go back to where I started. As a child and teen, I mainly focused on drawing portraits and models. I had a good start in developing my skills in drawing people. Both my parents and I didn’t think it a good plan to go to art academy, so I decided to study architecture.

Drawing skills and drafting by computer

Drafting a building is very different from drawing people. I discovered I had a talent for drafting on the computer. My drawing skills were forgotten and I developed my architectural skills on the computer. Now I feel there is a gap in my skill of drawing or painting abstract works by hand. I am displeased by a lot of the abstract works I have made in the past. I wanted to submerge myself in my skill in portraiture, and slowly develop myself out of realism.

The history of portrait-art as inspiration

During the making of this series of portraits I read and researched a lot about the centuries my foremothers lived in. I still look for information to make my image of their lives as complete as possible. I also looked at portraiture from the 16th to the 19th century. I would pick one or more artworks that formed the inspiration for the portrait. Sometimes I looked at the technique, like old photography and the style of drawing of Watteau. Sometimes I was inspired by the story behind an artwork, like with the genre-paintings and the portraits of Wilhelmina of Prussia. Other times I focused on the composition, the artist or a combination of these elements. It taught me a lot about the history of portraiture.

I also looked for the right expression of the models. Mostly they are based on the stories of the women modelling and the artworks I used as an inspiration. Sometimes I made them serious or romantic, sometimes I would give them an expression unusual for the time in portraits.

portrait about women's history in the Netherlands by Evelien de Bruijn

Less focused on details

One of the last portraits will be inspired by the heads of farmer’s wives by Vincent van Gogh, who lived in the same area as my foremothers. He is able to let go of realism and uses big brush strokes in these portraits, with the bare minimum in details. I won’t be copying his techniques, it’s not even possible on glass, but I am practicing in using less detail. In future projects I would like to leave realism even more, if I have it in me.

Development in this series of portraits

My head is full of doubt and the perfectionist in me is never happy. I have been working on this project for 2,5 years now, and the first works are most definitely different from the last. There is a development in them. At first I wanted to make works that you could hang on a wall easily. Glass works are hard to sell, because you either have to hang them in front of a window, or you have to put an LED-panel behind them, which makes them pretty heavy. It is always nice to make artwork that is ‘sellable’, because it’s a shame if all that effort ends up in my storage. I wanted to use the transparency of glass as a metaphor for a glimpse inside the soul. Previously I made a self-portrait in the same way, which had a bit of success at the Ruth Borchard Self-portrait Prize.

The shadows of our foremothers

After making the first portrait, I started to become interested in the shadow that the glass projected on the background. I liked the idea because I was making a portrait of a family member from the present, who represented a foremother from the past. We do not know much of who our foremothers were, what they thought and felt only exists in our imaginations and the real woman remains a mystery, a shadow. I wanted to make that shadow more important in the following portraits. So I bended the glass in the second portrait, making the projection more visible. Then I started to create more distance between the glass and the background. This also symbolically creates a distance between the model and the ghost of the past.

portrait about women's history in the Netherlands

Sunlight or artificial light

When the light is right, interesting shadows show on the canvas behind the portrait. To me it is most fascinating when sunlight moves over the artwork. The shadows and colors keep changing a little and I like not having full control over the ghost of my foremother. But there isn’t sunlight everywhere and artificial light sometimes comes from the wrong angle. For exhibitions I am considering providing flashlights, so visitors can create their own projections. In the last works, I want to make the projections even more important.

Historical papers as tangible element

My foremothers might have been able to read, but most of them couldn’t write. The most tangible evidence I found of their existences were the documents of their births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes they are marked with a cross, that they signed themselves. I wanted to use these papers in the portraits. I printed them out and used them in collages, that symbolize their inner thoughts. The last three portraits have documents printed on linen. At the moment of my writing this, I am still working on those. You can find my progress on these portraits on Instagram and Facebook.

Back to spatial work

These last three portraits are the next big step for me. I am going back to spatial work. It might be the architect in me, or perhaps it was unavoidable, but I left the idea of ‘sellability’ (portraits don’t sell anyway). I have always loved mobiles. The movement and shadows fascinate me. I think I can use these spatial qualities to tell the stories of my foremothers. You can walk around them, so you can experience the projections from the front and the back. The small movements will make the shadows come to life. Visitors can make their own perspective on the story. Just like historians write about their own perspective, their own interpretations of historical data.

The portraits I have finished, can be found on the website, but they are best experienced in real life. In the first half of 2024 they will be exhibited in Kunstzaal Dommeldal in Mierlo and in the Oude Raadhuys in Beek en Donk.

portrait about women's history in the Netherlands

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