Love Letter to Essie Somma

On top of a brightly colored (dotted) bed sheet, two books, a cell phone, floss, pills, a mask, a lighter, a journal, a deodorant stick and a broken cigarette are strewn about.
Essie Somma, Personal Devils, 2021. Oil on canvas. 31.4 x 31.4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Essie Somma’s portraits of modern women speak to me with the same power as classic renaissance portraits. Though they are both alike in their splendor, Somma paints with an intimacy unmatched by anything I’ve seen on gallery walls. Where renaissance paintings usher their viewers to stand in awe at the wealth of their patrons, Somma’s art invites me to recognize the grand effort that daily life requires. As in Personal Devils (2021), instead of centering the untouchable poise women often portray in a portrait, Somma invites the viewer into her vices. A splintered cigarette, a plastic straw, and a crumbled receipt represent a few of the many ways a woman might cope with the rush of the quotidian. 

There is nothing like the feeling of being able to place myself in a painting. I often return to images of pieces like Our Olympia (2021), when I have a towel on my head and a glass of Trader Joe’s red wine in my hand, or The Importance of a Third Pillow (2021), when I’m trying to fall asleep. Instead of feeling unattainable, Somma’s paintings pull back the curtain on her life.

Looking at her work brings me back to the time I first started going to museums in middle school, to that feeling of awe at the high class men and women whose portraits hung on those gallery walls and stared down at me. In Somma’s art, I finally feel equal to the subject of a painting. Standing before it, I feel I could not relate to a work of art more.

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Author: Sarah Russell

Sarah Russell is a scholar and theorist. She will graduate this Spring from Pacific Northwest College of Art with a MA in Critical Studies. Their research focuses heavily on re-canonizing art history and border theory. They currently live and work in Portland, OR.