Laura Knight was a prolific and successful British artist during her long lifetime (she was 92 when she died), but is now, nearly 50 years after her death, little known outside the art world. Much of her work was until very recently viewed as middlebrow and even a little corny; during her lifetime, as an unashamedly figurative painter in a period dominated by a mostly modernist aesthetic, she was regarded by many of her male colleagues as outmoded; her subject matter commonplace; and her cheerful, flamboyant approach to art and life embarrassing.
In 1913 she painted a portrait of herself painting a nude model (a friend and fellow artist). It is a vividly painted, formally composed work; the women, strikingly different, their backs to the viewer, are entirely absorbed in their own work. It is frank, distinctive and sensuous, and it caused quite a ruckus. Why? Because women didn’t paint self-portraits with real nudes in them. Nude women were objects of the male gaze; Knight’s deliberate challenging of this convention was an outrage. She herself, although she studied art, had not been permitted to attend life drawing classes – she could only copy other works or clay models. Her painting was labelled ‘vulgar’ and ‘regrettable’, and the Royal Academy refused to display it.
Today it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s hard to imagine how it could once have been considered shocking, but that’s because we’ve had more than one hundred years to get used to something that had never been done before Knight did it: a woman artist presenting herself as an equal within a male-dominated establishment.