THE PAINTED LADIES ; A New Exhibition Celebrates History's Most Notorious Women. India Knight, Who Sat for the Artist, Pays Tribute

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POWERFUL women -- whether their influence comes from sex, money, marriage, politics or all four -- have a hard time reputation-wise. They are viragos, seductresses, demonic plotters, enchantresses and witches. They are mad or "unnatural", or both. Rumours abound; gossip swirls; entire careers get reduced to one-liners. Catherine II of Russia, known as Catherine the Great, is remembered for supposedly having relations with a horse, not for her impressive grasp of foreign policy (and the rest).

Sometimes the gossip is not merely career-threatening, but life- ending: Anne Boleyn, a towering figure who helped bring about England's seismic parting from Rome, was beheaded because she supposedly slept with her own brother -- a better excuse than simply being too clever by half. Courtesans, often intelligent and ambitious women using the oldest short cut to power available to them at the time, are merely "whores". And those women who do manage to get into positions of real power, through accident of birth or marriage, are eternally, restlessly looking over their shoulders; ever at the mercy of a male-decreed killing, incarceration or -- for the lucky ones -- exile to a nunnery.

Alice Instone, whose exhibition opens today in Soho, has painted a series of modern subjects -- myself included -- in the poses of notorious historical females. She has been drawing women since she was little: "I think there may have been some link in my mind between the perfect female exterior and gaining some kind of control," she says. …