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Rebecca Fortnum: Les Praticiennes

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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‘A hand after Rodin’

In this film, Rebecca shares her motivation for her drawings and paintings and tells the stories behind the sculptures based on Rodin’s Study of a Hand (Le Main Gauche: Le Pianist).

The film also explores the journey of the hand from the Ashmolean museum to the Henry Moore Institute through 3D scanning, printing and casting in different materials.

This display of paintings and drawings by artist Rebecca Fortnum emerges from her ongoing interest in the women surrounding the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) in turn-of-the-century Paris.

Fortnum’s paintings depict sculptural works by fifteen women who were associated with Rodin’s studio, shining a light on these often-overlooked sculptors.

Fortnum conducted part of her research during her 2021-22 Henry Moore Institute Research Fellowship, which she spent searching for little-known portrait sculptures produced by women who worked in, or visited, Rodin’s Paris studio.

As they were not able to enter the École des Beaux-Arts until 1897, women aspiring to become professional artists often studied at a private academy before apprenticing with a ‘master’, and, for the most part, encountered prejudice as women working in a male-dominated profession.

Rodin devoted significant time to training women to sculpt, and sometimes went on to employ them in his studio as an assistant or praticienne. As women determined to make art against the odds, each of the artists that Fortnum has selected to make work from has an extraordinary, and in many cases unpublished, life narrative.

Through the works in Les Praticiennes, Fortnum seeks to shed light on this web of friendship, association and influence from all over the globe, including England, Scotland, France, Russia, Germany, America and Finland.

Painted portrait of a white woman with brown hair and eyebrows, with her eyes cast down and her cheek resting on one hand.
Painted portrait of a white woman with blue eyes and ginger hair and eyebrows, wearing an ornate headdress. Her eyes are cast down, looking away from the viewer.

“I’m working from women’s depictions of women (often a friend or peer) with their eyes downcast or closed or looking away. I enjoy the ambiguity implicit in both the signalling of empowered absorption or self-containment alongside a reading of social conformity and female modesty.”

Rebecca Fortnum

Fortnum’s paintings are based on portraits of women sculpted by women. They are displayed on specially designed, hand-printed wallpaper that, working against the averted or downward gaze of the sitters in the paintings, draws the viewer into its ornamentation and symmetry.

The accompanying drawings, made with dense carbon pencil, are based on portraits of men produced by the women. The images often depict figures close to the artists – partners, teachers, fathers – yet the vast scale of the works makes these encounters confrontational.

Fortnum explains of the works in the display, “most of these sculptures now only exist in photographic documents – by painting and drawing them I attempt to exhume them, ruminating on the often-overlooked legacy of women sculptors”.

The artists that have provided source material for Fortnum’s works range from the actress and sculptor Sarah Bernhardt, an artist twenty years Rodin’s junior, who was reputedly little admired by the master, to Malvina Hoffman, a pupil and loyal friend of his later years, to whom he sent his wedding photograph the year he died. The full list includes:

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)
Kühne Beveridge (1879-1944)
Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
Hilda Flodin (1877-1958)
Sigrid af Forselles (1860-1935)
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968)
Anna Golubkina (1864-1927)
Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966)
Madeleine Jouvray (1862-1935)
Jessie Lipscomb (1861-1952)
Clara Rilke-Westhoff (1878-1954)
Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955)
Ottilie Maclaren Wallace (1875-1947)
Emilie Jenny Weyl (1855-1934)
Enid Yandell (1869-1934)


This exhibition is supported by Research awards from The Glasgow School of Art

Black and white pencil drawing of the head of an older man with a large, long beard.

About the artist

Rebecca Fortnum is an artist, writer and academic. She has exhibited paintings at the Freud Museum, London and the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood and was Visiting Research Fellow in Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford, where she developed her painting project, A Mind Weighted with Unpublished Matter, published as a book by Slimvolume in 2020.

Her own books include: Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words, On Not Knowing: How Artists Think and A Companion to Contemporary Drawing. In 2021-22 she was Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Moore Institute.

She has been Professor of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art and Middlesex University, and is currently Professor and Head of the School of Fine Art at The Glasgow School of Art.

Exhibition guide

Download a copy of the exhibition guide for Rebecca Fortnum: Les Praticiennes.


Download exhibition guide
(PDF, 1mb)

Face is an Image Machine

Essay in response to the exhibition by Amelia Stein


Something I keep thinking about in relation to Rebecca Fortnum’s Les Praticiennes is if portraits can be both real and not true. I am haunted by this possibly self-collapsing question of veracity and can’t get past it. Why?

When I visited Fortnum, she told me that she likes that portraiture hasn’t been considered ‘real art’ for a long time. ‘Real’ is a funny word here. Read slantwise and without quotes – no importation of contested meaning to stifle (my) sincerity – it says a lot about how meaning is made and how authenticity and criticality are presumed foreclosed if the object of a work is a credible likeness.

So what is a portrait? Or rather, what is a face? To treat them as fungible is not so silly. Think about when you see a lover again after a long time. The face is both different and the same, more and less like what you imagined. Profile becomes experience and this has more to do with the compression of layers of images in reality than with the transfiguration of image into thing. Some fiction is lost and replaced with something else. The story is overwritten but also edified by new meaning. This describes a dynamic of intimacy as well as painting.

How a face is a life is important to Fortnum. She wants to know how relationships with friends and lovers and art and time might show up for real in portraiture or the face as work. In Les Praticiennes, Fortnum gets at this through a process of translation: a buildup of interpretation from live model to sculpture via the work of another artist, to images of the work on Fortnum’s computer screen, to the pictures she makes of that work in paint or carbon. What translation and portraiture have in common is the slipperiness of the source. They describe an approach to reality in which speculation is possible without metaphor.

Painted portrait of a white woman with blonde hair and eyebrows, with her eyes closed and cast down. Her hair is cut to a short fringe at the front and has a slight curl to it, and looks to be tied up in a but at the back of her head.
Black and white pencil drawing of the head of middle-aged man wearing a judges wig.

All of the artists whose sculpture Fortnum works from crossed paths with Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) but this is usually one of their lesser anecdotes. The actress and sculptor Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), for instance, nursed her dying husband, a failed actor and morphine addict, before carving a funerary bust in marble that Fortnum draws. In faces by Camille Claudel (1864-1943) and Jessie Lipscomb (1861-1952), Fortnum sees the two women’s tricky friendship: Lipscomb as Rodin’s reluctant go-between with Claudel; Claudel renouncing Lipscomb; Lipscomb returning to visit Claudel during her long incarceration in Montdevergues Asylum and asking her husband to photograph them standing side by side.

Because Fortnum has seen very few of the sculptures in person, she relies on what is accessible to understand who she is picturing. This includes images and also writing, theses, biographies and archival papers. Ottilie MacLaren Wallace’s (1875-1947) letters, which her husband kept, were written under the penname Shulamith and contained rose petals. In her early ideas for Les Praticiennes, Fortnum planned to write in the voices of the artists. A trial epistolary piece from Wallace ends: ‘Alone here at night in Paris I think of you in London and touch myself in your stead’.

This is a clue. So is the light, which seems to come from nowhere. Vision isn’t durable or to be trusted. Appearance in this series is conditional, induced. Fortnum’s way of posing the problem of looking and what looking wants frees the face to a more fluid state of purpose in that the eyes point back to the hand that is at work. When, among the drawings, the head of Wallace’s father bursts from material darkness like a newborn or anomaly, his eyes are empty of self-knowledge. Fortnum is working economically with history and memory while intervening in the number of subjectivities that can flow through one face.

Supposedly, dogs don’t look at the faces of other dogs but are studious of human faces because they understand that’s how humans communicate their intentions. This makes me think that to treat allegory as interchangeable with meaning in a portrait is to mistake something about what a face is. A face is a sign and also a surface. A face may say less about the appearance of the mind, as Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) suggested, than it does about the in-the-world-ness of appearances…

… Say how Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) fused two or more flat views in his sculptures and proved on some level – by confounding and contriving profile – what is needed to make a face. These heads are helpful as I’m trying to understand what type of appearance faces negotiate. With a portrait you have to imagine – which feels like seeing – the back of the head. Every part of Les Praticiennes bolsters the fiction of my real desire to see: the artist and her subjects, who are not the people in the pictures; and the portraits, sculpture and wallpaper, silkscreened and fading as it nears the ceiling as if saying something about light and time.

Giacometti conceals profile in the round. Fortnum brings faces about through similar gestures of pressing, prying, pinching and the idea of composition as a provisional state, but backwards. She searches, collates, zooms and so on to approximate first-hand seeing and at the pixel limit, invents. What is allowed to come through in her facture is historical proprioception or a sense of where she is in time. The little porcelain hand, derived from 3D modelling, is a cipher. Painting and drawing become kinds of impossible touching. The effect is very tender without being familiar at all.

I want to write ‘who is Fortnum painting’ to use reading’s reflexivity to link these artists – Fortnum and her group of fifteen – with the faces in the portraits in the way that the poet and essayist Joan Retallack (b. 1941) describes using ‘I’ to index the transformation of medium and subject matter (which may include herself) through the activity of working. Disarticulating the subject feels appropriate because Fortnum employs identity to trace material collisions. She doesn’t want to be right. A student looking at a self-portrait once asked Fortnum whether Rembrandt (1606-69) was a nice person. The first and best mistake is to compare the creation with what is made by God.

Painted portrait of a white woman with auburn hair and eyebrows, with her eyes cast down and her hair tied up in a bun on top of her head. She is wearing a blue shirt, decorated with a red flower attached to the collar.
Black and white pencil drawing of the head of middle-aged man.

How much of this is a Pygmalion story? All these layers of time, attention and matter are condensed here. Maybe it’s not so eucharistic. I’m thinking of the large, painterly blots on the (probably erotic) sections of MacLaren Wallace’s letters. Fortnum is working with occlusions that can’t be transubstantiated. She chose these artists for their extraordinary and sometimes catastrophic lives as well as for the patchy afterlives of their work in words and images. And here the subject, I, a woman working, is intending something about time’s treachery and incarnation as a resource –

The artist Luc Tuymans (b. 1958) once said that he was ‘uninterested in renderings of people where the meaning comes from “the inside out”’, but when does that ever happen? Possibly the worst thing you could say about a Tuymans painting is that it is real. Or beautiful, confusing the surface of the artwork with that of the face. But manner or way of looking in Fortnum’s work encompasses such apophatic blind spots. The face as a composition or sequence of gestures is the face that converts source into sign open-endedly. These pictures that are sensate truths are speculative appearances. They are about portraiture in the way that Tuymans’s work is about painting but the face remains an extended thing.

Am I looking for sly facticity or to gain access to a feeling? One drawing that stands out is from a work by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955), who met Rodin only once and was allegedly disappointed. Fortnum drew from images of Vonnoh’s maquette of Sarah Bernhardt which is missing a face. The head without one is like a door or mirror in that I see my own desire to look or move. Vonnoh was known for her small bronzes but Fortnum’s drawing is larger than life, sort of like Rodin’s Monument to Balzac 1898 except that Bernhardt seems nonplussed. Expression without appearance. This is one of those moments where I am thinking about reality meaning what is possible. Something else Fortnum told me from Maclaren Wallace’s diaries is that she wanted to be happy but she also wanted to be a good artist.

Amelia Stein is a writer, editor and teacher living in London. She is a Contributing Editor at Real Review and teaches at Glasgow School of Art.

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