Fresh impressions: female portraits on walls

There’s a severe dearth of women in portaits on Irish walls, and the Royal Irish Academy is doing its bit to redress the balance

If you are in an office now, have a look around to see what are on the walls. If it is the kind of workplace or institution that displays paintings or photographs, what are they of? Are any of the subjects women?

Staff at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin looked around their walls recently and realised none of the portraits were of women. They decided to honour the past achievements of the first four women elected as members of the RIA: art historian Françoise Henry, physicist Sheila Tinney, scientist Phyllis Clinch, and literature scholar Eleanor Knott. In tandem, they also decided to honour eight female scientists currently working in Irish academic institutions. All 12 are to be the subject of specially-commissioned portraits, with the eight scientists together in a group portrait.

The RIA is calling it the Women on Walls project, and hoping it will generate widespread interest. The intention is to host a campaign at some point in the project, to encourage people to look at their workspaces and see if the presence of women is reflected there, and if not, to make some active changes to ensure they do. Its ambitious aim is to see portraits of 1,000 women in 100 countries over the next three years.

How do you paint people who are dead? This is the challenge facing Dublin-based German artist Vera Klute, who won the commission to paint the first four women elected to the RIA. "It is a very different style of painting," Klute admits. "Especially as there is only one photograph that we can find of Françoise Henry. She wrote many books, but was very camera shy and the one photograph we have found is very blurry."


Klute will also look at a sculpture of Henry that is held at NCAD. “The concept that I submitted is that I will use various items in the background. They will all have to be visually similar in some way, as they will hang tightly in a grid.”

The second artist to be awarded a commission is Blaise Smith, who will have the challenge of the eight-strong group portrait, along with ensuring the individuality of each subject.

The eight women scientists are Debra Laefer, Emma Teeling and Aoife Gowen of UCD; Aoife McLysaght, Sarah McCormack and Catríona Lally of TCD, who will soon be joined by Lydia Lynch, currently at Harvard Medical School; and Maria McNamara of UCC.

“A portrait is a collaborative thing,” he says. “The setting where someone is painted is a discourse in itself. There’s probably a lab in their lives and that will be the first thing I suggest to them; the lab will say a great deal about their occupation as scientists.” Smith is extremely conscious of how his subjects will be scrutinised.

“You look at so many group photographs of women in the public eye, and because of the society and culture we live in, their appearance is always much more of an issue than it is with men. We live in a society and culture where they can get turned into fashion shoots, like Vanity Fair’s Hollywood spreads of actresses. Clothes can take the attention away from the person.”

Smith is hoping to persuade his subjects to wear white lab coats, although he acknowledges that may in itself be problematic, and come off seeming more like a uniform. “You’re constructing a very complicated essay and everything means something,” he says.

Smith works using some very old methods. Before he starts to paint, he coats his panels with between six to eight coats of “gesso”. Gesso is a combination of rabbitskin glue and whiting; “the white stuff they use to write on butcher shop windows”.

Smith sees himself as a documentary painter, and views this commission as documenting a change. “It’s the RIA changing from a patriarchal society to a different kind of one.”

Deborah Laefer of UCD, originally from New York, is one of the scientists who will be in this portrait. Her research uses a 3D modelling system that can predict what structures are most likely to sustain damage during tunnelling.

She hopes the portrait will reflect the fact that the eight of them come from so many different disciplines. As it turns out, she knows exactly what gesso is, because her first degree was in art history.

“My main interest was late Renaissance paintings, and if you look at Holbein’s paintings, many of those paintings were of the merchant class. They had their paintings done as a sign of prestige and they are usually shown with some kind of small object from their possessions or trade. I think it would be lovely if we all held or showed someone specific to our discipline. What would I hold? That’s a hard one because I do virtual things, but maybe a hologram of a building.”

Laefer is less sure than Smith that academia in general is reflecting a substantive move away from patriarchy. "Women are very under-represented in the Royal Irish Academy in applied sciences," she points out. "But it's not just in Ireland; in the US, in the National Academy of Engineering, only 3 per cent of civil engineers are women. If this represents the future in terms of leadership, if we are not fully represented in these institutions, then we will not be empowered to contribute."