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van Hemessen, Catherine (ca. 1527–1587)

van Hemessen, Catherine (ca. 1527-1587)

Flemish painter, the first documented female painter of the Low Countries and a noted portrait painter. Born in Antwerp, the daughter of Jan Sanders van Hemessen, a minor artist, she studied with her father and eventually joined the painters guild of Antwerp. During the 1540s, she was taken on as a court painter by Maria of Austria, then serving as regent for Emperor Charles V in the Low Countries. She painted portraits, mostly of women set against a plain dark background that strikingly focused the observer's eye on the features and character of the subject. Her own self-portrait of 1548 is known as the first to depict the painter working at an easel. When Maria returned to Spain in 1556, van Hemessen followed her patron and was rewarded with a pension for her work after Maria's death in 1558. She then returned to Antwerp. Only ten of her works have survived to modern times, and there are no works at all from this later period in her life. Historians believe she may have given up painting altogether after her marriage.

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