Born 1963 London, England
Rebecca Fortnum is an artist, academic, curator, and writer. She completed an English BA at the University of Oxford (1983–6) before gaining a Master of Fine Arts from Newcastle University (1986–8). Primarily known for her paintings and pencil drawings, Fortnum takes inspiration from sculptures, often using them as models for her own works. She undertook a research fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute (2021–22) wherein she responded to the artworks of fifteen women associated with French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s studio. The resultant series of artworks – ‘Les Praticiennes’ (2023) – reflect her wider scholarly interest in women artists, which has seen her publish books such as Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words (2008). Fortnum also writes about the artistic process and pedagogy, incorporating her own experience both as a practitioner and teacher, having held positions including Professor of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art (2016–21) and Professor and Head of the School of Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art since 2021.
The subject of L’Inconnue de la Seine (2011) is an anonymous woman who drowned in the River Seine in late nineteenth-century Paris. The morgue attendant was so moved by the woman’s beauty and serenity that he took the death mask, and it has captivated people ever since. In the twentieth century the cast was mass-produced to adorn the interiors of homes in Europe, but is more commonly encountered today as the prototype ‘Resusci-Annie’ CPR mannequin, which has become crucial to First Aid training across the world.
L’Inconnue de la Seine resonates with artist Rebecca Fortnum’s interest in reanimating historical depictions by and of women, and in particular closed-eye portraits. About the downwards, closed or diverted gaze, Fortnum explains: ‘I enjoy the ambiguity implicit in both the signalling of empowered absorption or self-containment alongside a reading of social conformity and female modesty.’