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I chose these paintings because:

  • There are many paintings of women working where the head is bent over their work. They do not engage with the viewer. I find this makes the focus more on the work than the woman. She has been de-personalised. So I chose paintings where the subject gazes out at us, even though this means that she has either paused her work or sits dressed to reflect her work.

  • these women look at us and their gazes are complex. Is their gaze inward or outward?

  • these women are productive in their work and in their pastimes

  • they are socially diverse

  • and quite simply, their gazes fascinate me

8 artworks
  • The sitter seems devoid of emotion, sanitised and without the context of her work. Yet it's the gaze into the distance that engages us. Her face seems closed and withdrawn. What is it that she does not wish us to see in her eyes? Is she so tired that she just stares into the middle distance? Or is she dreaming of a different future to the life she lives?

    Pit Brow Girl 1895
    Hannah Keen (1873–1899)
    Oil on canvas
    H 39 x W 29 cm
    National Coal Mining Museum for England
    Pit Brow Girl
    Photo credit: National Coal Mining Museum for England

  • A world-weary gaze, at odds with the youthful subject. You feel that nothing would surprise this girl. Her gaze seems to see you and look through or past you at the same time.

    A Girl in Costume Knitting 1893
    Ralph Hedley (1848–1913)
    Oil on panel
    H 40 x W 29.4 cm
    Laing Art Gallery
    A Girl in Costume Knitting
    Photo credit: Laing Art Gallery

  • A gaze that is hard to interpret. Have we interrupted her and is that unwelcome? There's a guarded, defensive quality; an inwardness. If we sat alongside her we would not see what she is seeing. The picture of middle class conformity; her rebellion is in her gaze.

    Woman Knitting
    Mavis Blackburn (1923–2005)
    Oil on canvas
    H 70 x W 50.8 cm
    Williamson Art Gallery & Museum
    Woman Knitting
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Williamson Art Gallery & Museum

  • The gaze

    What a knowing, experienced look. This is no one-dimensional academic. This is a woman who wears the males robes of academia and makes them her own. 'I know you and I know the world', she seems to be saying. She steadiness of her gaze speaks of wry humour and deep humanity.

    Mildred Katherine Pope, Vice-Principal (1929–1934) 1934
    Herbert James Gunn (1893–1964)
    Oil on canvas
    H 75 x W 61 cm
    Somerville College, University of Oxford
    Mildred Katherine Pope, Vice-Principal (1929–1934)
    © estate of the artist. Photo credit: Somerville College, University of Oxford

  • This girl gazes away from us. She is almost blank with lack of interest. A stony gaze that defies us to see her as anything other than an individual.

    The Milkmaid c.1912
    Ruth Simpson (1889–1964)
    Oil on canvas
    H 92 x W 61.5 cm
    Penlee House Gallery & Museum
    The Milkmaid
    © the artist's estate. Photo credit: Penlee House Gallery & Museum

  • Beautiful and sad eyes. A gaze that seems to hold pain within it. And no wonder.

    Auxiliary Fire Service Girl, City Fire Station 1940
    Ethel Léontine Gabain (1883–1950)
    Oil on canvas
    H 78.7 x W 66 cm
    Southwark Art Collection
    Auxiliary Fire Service Girl, City Fire Station
    Photo credit: Southwark Art Collection

  • A defiant girl protecting the sheep. If we were to retitle this today, we might say rather 'Child labourer'. Her gaze is both wary and watchful.

    The Shepherdess 1885
    George Clausen (1852–1944)
    Oil on canvas
    H 64.7 x W 46 cm
    Walker Art Gallery
    The Shepherdess
    Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery

  • A resolute and determined gaze. With no show of emotion, all the force of her personality is in her eyes.

    Mrs Pat Rule, née Detmold, Mayor of Royston (1974–1976 & 1980–1981) 1940s
    Ernest Herbert Whydale (1886–1952)
    Oil on canvas
    H 61 x W 51 cm
    Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery
    Mrs Pat Rule, née Detmold, Mayor of Royston (1974–1976 & 1980–1981)
    © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Royston & District Museum & Art Gallery