Cindy Sherman paved her career by expanding the idea of the self-portrait, beyond that of her own, to explore issues of identity and representation. In her photographs, Sherman alters her physical appearance to create characters that become framed in the narrative and environment she constructs. Her most iconic works, and arguably the body of work from which all of Sherman’s subsequent photographic series have stemmed, are the Untitled Film Stills . Her photographs often examine the role of gender and class in society, however other thematic elements of her work explore history and geography’s role in identity formation.
In Untitled #193, Sherman engages with female portraiture in 18th Century France by channeling a woman of the aristocracy. She dresses her character in a blue silk robe and white linen dress that harks back to the Neoclassical fashions of this period. The orange sash tied above her waist draws attention to her low cut dress which reveals her glistening chest. A string of pearls rest on her neck and she holds an oriental style fan, both possessions made readily available through colonialism and the international market. She reclines on a bed of silk sheets, her backdrop is a curtain of lace and silk, and below lies a ball of yarn and crochet needle, all signs that her character resides in the domestic private sphere.
Through the medium of photography, Sherman strips away the illusion inherent to painting to reveal a less elegant depiction of the upper class woman of this period. The scene is highly staged and stylized and results in a parody of the representation of the woman in French society. Sherman’s character embodies the identity of a woman that would have commissioned work from the artists Elisabeth-Louise Vegée-Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Through the depiction of femininity in this historical period, Sherman is drawing a parallel between this period and the one in which we now locate ourselves. The viewer is forced to reflect on contemporary values and concepts of the feminine ingrained in modern society.