This painting caught my eye on my recent visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario because it reminded me so much of a similar painting by Norman Rockwell, where he is creating a portrait of himself just like Mary Anne Alabaster is in her 1830 work. I saw Rockwell’s portrait when I first started working at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and they were featuring an exhibition of Rockwell’s work.
I decided I wanted to know more about the woman who had created her portrait in a style another famous artist would use more than one hundred and thirty years later.
Mary Ann Rebecca Alabaster was a British woman born in 1805 who loved to paint from the time she was a child. While her father Charles was encouraging of her art, her mother Mary forbid her from pursuing a career as a painter, so after her father died Mary Ann would get up early in the morning to paint before her mother was awake. Eventually her dedication won her mother over and she allowed Mary Anne to take art lessons and became a full time artist. Mary Anne married Harry Criddle in 1836. She continued to paint even after she assumed care for her brother’s three sons after he and his wife both died in 1840. Mary had a son Percy in 1844 and was left to care for him and her nephews on her own after her husband died in 1857. Interestingly Mary’s son Percy emigrated to Manitoba where he became a successful farmer. Mary Anne’s sight was negatively effected by oil paint so she ended up switching to water colors. She became an honorary member of the British Society of Painters in Water Colors but she and the other three female members were forbidden from sharing in any financial profits from the society. Her work was widely shown at exhibitions in the England and America.
In an interesting video on the Art Gallery of Ontario website curtor Caroline Shields points out intriguing details in Mary Anne’s self- portrait. The shawl Mary Anne is wearing wrapped around her shoulders in the portrait is wrapped around the back of her chair and she is not holding the staff in her hand in the painting. The portraits on the wall behind her were done by famous Spanish artists. There is evidence of Mary Anne’s interest in other art forms- the sculpture on the floor, the open literature books on the table, the musical instrument-a guitar propped in the right corner and Mary’s water color portfolio open on the floor. Mary Anne also appeals to our senses- smell with the flowers on the table- touch with the rich texture of her skirt, hearing with the guitar- and sight- with all the details in the room.
If I hadn’t been familiar with Norman Rockwell’s unique self-portrait I might not have taken note of Mary Anne’s and photographed it as I walked through the vast collection on display at the AGO. When I am in a place like the Art Gallery of Ontario which is literally LOADED with more wonderful art than you could explore in a month, it is always interesting for me to think about why certain works catch my eye, make me stop for a second look, prompt me to take a photo and when I get home find out more about the artwork.
I am curious about what artworks Mary Anne’s self -portrait will inspire me to take a closer look at, in future visits to other art galleries.