At first glance, Self-Portrait of My Sister appears to be a relatively straightforward representation of a young woman. It was painted by the Chicago Surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie but seems to lack the mysterious imagery of her landscapes and interior scenes. Further examination, however, reveals subtle touches of her dark aesthetic, beginning with the title itself. Self-Portrait of My Sister is an enigmatic reference to a sister who did not exist, for the artist was in fact an only child. However, Abercrombie initially referred to this painting as “Portrait of Artist as Ideal,” a phrase that reveals her underlying meaning. Abercrombie’s work was invariably self-referential; as she put it, “It’s always myself that I paint, but not actually, because I don’t look that good or cute.” Her reference to a fictitious, prettier sister hints at her desire to be a different person, a longing she satisfied through self-portraiture.
Here, the artist exaggerated and idealized her appearance, depicting herself with an extraordinarily long, slender neck; vivid blue eyes; and sharpened features. She portrayed herself wearing black gloves and a flat-brimmed hat trimmed with a bunch of grapes, all motifs that recurred with some frequency in her paintings and acted as symbols of her presence. Such inclusions helped shape her individual variant of Surrealism, which she felt was based in realism. “Surrealism is meant for me,” she remarked, “because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see. So I dream that it is changed. Then I change it to the way I want it. It is almost always pretty real. Only mystery and fantasy have been added. All foolishness has been taken out. It becomes my own dream.”
Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.
Annual Report (Art Institute of Chicago, 2008–09), 16.
Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago: Highlights of the Collection, (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2017) 133.
Art Institute of Chicago, 52nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, Oct. 30, 1941–Jan. 4, 1942, cat. 1.
New York, Associated American Artist Galleries, First Exhibition of Paintings by Gertrude Abercrombie, Jan. 24–Feb. 6, 1949, cat. 9.
Athens, Ohio University, 1947.
Chicago Public Library, Art Room, 1948.
Chicago, Mandel Brothers Gallery, Exhibition of Chicago Artists’ Self Portraits, 1953.
Chicago, Newman Brown Gallery, Gertrude Abercrombie, 1953.
Aurora, Illinois, John Fordon Gallery, Gertrude Abercrombie, 1953.
Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, Gertrude Abercrombie: a Retrospective Exhibition, 1977, as Self–Portrait, cat. 25.
Chicago and Springfield, Illinois State Museum, Gertrude Abercrombie, 1991.
Chicago and Springfield, Illinois State Museum, Chicago Painting, 1895–1945, the Bridges Collection, 2000–01, cat. 1.
Chicago, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago Modern, 1893–1945: Pursuit of the New, July 17–Oct. 31, 2004, cat. 1.
Madison, Wisconsin, Elvehjem Museum of Art, With Friends–Six Magic Realists, June 18–Aug. 28, 2005.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Art In Chicago – Resisting Regionalism, Transforming Modernsim, Feb. 9–Apr. 2, 2006, cat. 17.
Springfield, Illinois State Museum, Chicago Painting, 1895–1945, the Bridges Collection, 2007–08.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Activities of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, Jan. 29–May 6, 2012; Musee National des Beaux–Arts du Quebec, June 7–Sept. 3, 2012; Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno, Sept. 27, 2012–Jan. 13, 2013, cat. 24.
Gertrude Abercrombie, until 1976; Scott Elliott and Gordon Cameron, Kelmscott Gallery, Chicago, 1976-94; Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, Chicago, 1994; Powell and Barbara Bridges, Wilmette, IL, 1994; given to the Art Institute of Chicago, 2009.
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