Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678) was one of the most important thinkers of her day and the first woman in the Netherlands to attend university. She was well known in European intellectual circles, and was an accomplished artist, poet and linguist, as well as a passionate advocate of women’s rights to education.
In this portrait, Lievens focuses on her status as a writer. She sits upright and looks at us directly and confidently, modestly but expensively dressed in a fur wrap and chemise. He also portrays her in an active, not reflective, light. The book which she holds has, or at least appears to have, blank pages. So she is not reading, but about to write: her pen and inkstand stand ready before her on the oriental rug which covers her desk.
Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678) was one of the most important thinkers of her day. She was 42 when this portrait was made and well known in European intellectual circles, corresponding with people like the statesman, poet and composer Constantijn Huygens and the French philosopher René Descartes.
Taught Latin by her father, she was given special permission to attend lectures at the university of her home town, Utrecht, in 1636. She was the first woman in the Netherlands to attend university, though she had to sit behind a screen so that male students were not distracted by her. Among her best known publications was her Dissertatio of 1641, a defence of the education of women, and a later work on a similar theme, The Learned Maid or, Whether a Maid may be a Scholar.
She was well known as a poet, spoke 14 languages and was an accomplished artist. In 1642 was admitted to the Utrecht artists’ guild as a ‘painter, sculptor and engraver’. She never married, apparently more interested in her studies and, especially during the last decade of her life, religion. She lost many of her intellectual friends when she became a member of the separatist Labadist movement, which followed the fundamentalist Christian teachings of a defrocked French priest, Jean de Labadie.
Here, however, Lievens, who was the same age as van Schurman, was painting her at the peak of her fame. He focuses on her status as a writer. She sits upright and looks at us directly and confidently, modestly but expensively dressed in a fur wrap and chemise. It’s hard to see but, held in place with a ring of pearls, there is also a black veil covering her hair – a sign of piety.
Lievens portrays her in an active, not reflective, light. The book which she holds – keeping some pages with the fingers of her left hand – has, or at least appears to have, blank pages. So she is not reading, but about to write: her pen and inkstand stand ready before her on the oriental rug which covers her desk. It may be that Lievens had been commissioned to make this painting to be engraved and published as one of a series of portraits of illustrious figures. Van Dyck had contributed to a similar project, his famous ‘Iconography’ of 100 of the most significant monarchs, diplomats, artists and scholars of the day, which had been published in 1645–6.
The date (1649) and Lievens’ initials, inscribed just to the left of her right arm, are authentic, but the name at the top of the picture is a later addition. However, it looks like other known portraits of van Schurman and the ink, pen and book add further weight to the identification.
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