To read The Mirror and the Palette is to be reminded why art history is such a compelling subject ... In lively prose, author Jennifer Higgie touches on all of these bases, taking us through a varied terrain while advancing her illuminating thesis ... Throughout the book, Higgie persuasively emphasizes self-portraiture as a mode of self-expression. She studies individual works closely and captures the mood and motivation behind each. Sometimes her interpretation is idiosyncratic; another viewer could read something very different into the picture. Her writing is at its most emotionally evocative, even lyrical, when she imagines multitudes of women in their tiny attics and dimly lit studios, looking at themselves and deciding how they want to be remembered ... By skillfully balancing the historical and the imaginative, The Mirror and the Palette is not only a delight to read, but inspirational.
Higgie’s descriptions of the repressive conditions under which women artists have operated can be repetitive and generalising, and in a handful of cases (those of Gwen John and Leonora Carrington, for example) the focus on biography outweighs discussion of the work. But the book’s ‘meandering and personal’ approach, as she describes it, gives us an accessible, sympathetic view of women’s emancipatory use of self-portraiture to ‘reflect the world back on itself’.
... engrossing ... However you cut it, Higgie is pretty much on the money when it comes to the visibility of female artists among the general population ... This isn’t the first book to look at women’s self-portraits, but here, the chosen works of self-scrutiny, a good number of which are reproduced in the book, are treated as pinging off points for an absorbing if occasionally meandering story of women’s art made in the European tradition ... You come away from this book with a sense that the countless struggles that have gone before - those of which we have traces, and many more about which we will never know a thing - are in a very real way the blocks on which women artists’ achievements have been raised.
Jennifer Higgie tells the story of the female self-portrait from the 16th century on, her inevitably sprawling narrative taking its structure from what is essentially a group biography – though she seems to be reluctant to admit to this, titling her chapters not for the women they portray, but for vague moods and themes ... 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' ... As I read, I longed for a deeper interrogation of the tensile strength of the artist who practises, metaphorically speaking, in a corner ... But perhaps the real problem with this book is that it has already been written.
While her book is well researched and provides wonderful descriptions of the selected works to which she refers, at times, Higgie appears to struggle with a desire to find a stronger connection between the artists than exists. Frequently, she ponders if the artists may have met or known of each other’s work, followed by the reluctant answer that we do not know. This pattern feels stilted and detracts from the flow of the book. While the text initially feels dry and academic, perhaps due to limited information being available related to the early artists, Higgie finds her stride around the midpoint, creating an overall fascinating commentary about the identity of female artists. The book includes color photos of many of the works discussed ... A mostly engaging analysis of the resilience of female artists throughout modern history.