As I walk around the room my eyes turn from single portraits of men to groups of them, all heads down with white hats on. I push on further and am suddenly struck by two paintings side by side. I think, besides me, they are the only other women in this part of the gallery. My eyes flicker and scan the tittles placed at the right of either painting. Praxitella and The Little Seamstress.. A stone woman glares down at me, demanding questions or answers, whichever I have. It seems almost like a reversal of Medusa, only this time she is made to stone when she looks at anyone else. It is almost as though she chooses to do so. A quick Google search of her name tells me that Praxiteles was the first to sculpt the female nude into a life sized statue. I understand then, the inversion of names. Praxitella is not nude but she is life size and she herself has commanded to be painted. Though she is not sculpted from stone, stark swooping lines sculpt her face and body. Her dress folds out around her and it seems as though she is in command of every subject in the painting. I turn and look at The Little Seamstress, the girl beside her. Again I am caught off by an inversion, this time between the two paintings. Where Praxitella’s background is painted as a discoloured white wall to foreground her own sheer force, the seamstress’s background seems to swallow her in the very colours its painted in. The dark blue seems to grab at her, just similar enough to the colour of her hair and skirt to begin to blur the lines of where colour ends and young girl begins. She too sits on a chair, though she is hunched slightly, as though she is trying to conceal herself. Where Praxitella glares down at the viewer the seamstress seems to try and avert her eyes. It is as though she was told to sit down and be painted and Praxitella commanded to be. Where the seamstress perches precariously on her chair, Praxitella sits strident on a throne, only there has been a mistake, an armchair is in its place. Both of their hair has been done up as well. In fact, they even have similar hair colour. Only The Little Seamstress is given a tell-tale sign of her youth – a lock has come loose and forms a small curl at the top of her forehead. Praxitella remains untouched by age. There are no wrinkles, no tell-tale curls. All I know is she is old enough to wear lipstick. Praxitella is cold and impenetrable, the seamstress is soft and vulnerable. I stand back again and look at the two paintings, side by side. One woman sits, terrifying and commanding. One girl hunches, terrified and unwilling.
Wyndham Lewis, Praxitella, (c.1921), Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/praxitella-37620
Mathew Arnold Bracy Smith, The Little Seamstress, (1917), Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-little-seamstress-38509