BERTHA WEGMANN

(Soglio 1847 – 1926 Copenhagen)

 
 

Despair

Signed lower right B Wegmann

Oil on canvas

39 x 52 cm (15 3/8 x 20 ½ inches)

As was the case for most female artists before the 20th century, Bertha Wegmann was only able to pursue art with the support and encouragement of her father, a merchant who had a love for art and painting. Wegmann did not begin her formal training until the age of nineteen, when she began taking lessons from the Danish painters F. C. Lund (1826-1901) and Frederick Ferdinand Helsted (1809-1875). Both of Wegmann’s teachers had studied at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts, but as a woman she could not follow in their footsteps. In 1888 the Academy reluctantly open a separate school for women, and the institutions later merged in 1908. Unable to pursue her studies at a higher level in Copenhagen, Wegmann departed for Munich where she studied at the Academy under the German history painter Wilhelm Lindenschmit (1829-1925) and the Austrian genre painter Eduard Kurzbauer (1840-1879).

At the Munich Academy Wegmann befriended the Swedish artist Jeanna Bauck (1840-1926), a fellow feminist painter and future favored teacher of Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). The women grew weary of painting solely inside the studio, and so they left the Academy to travel throughout Italy and eventually settled in Paris, the epicenter of progressive artistic practice in Europe. The pair lived and shared studio space in Paris from 1881 to 1883, and both submitted paintings to the Salon in 1881 and 1882. Over these two years the women created a series of portraits of one another, often depicted at work in their studio. The project was intentionally designed to question the societal norm that professional artists could only be men and advocate for female artists, a cause to which both women would go on to dedicate their lives.

When Wegmann returned to Copenhagen in 1883 she exhibited a portrait of her sister at the Charlottenborg Palace and won the Thorvaldsen Medal, the highest distinction from the Royal Academy. Four years later she was the first woman elected to hold a seat on the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts plenary assembly, as well as the first woman to have a painting exhibited in the National Gallery of Denmark. In 1887 she became a member of the board of the Drawing and Art Industry School for Women, a role she held until 1907. Wegmann continued to exhibit widely throughout Scandinavia, Europe and even the United States when she participated in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Despair is an intimate and empathetic image of a woman in a state of hopelessness. Something awful and unknowable has happened, and she has been left alone in this physical expression of defeat and sadness. Interior scenes of the 19th century often depict women in the confines of their home, going about their chores while their absent husband assumedly enjoys the freedom of public life outside. In the current painting Wegmann accentuates the confinement of the domestic space by closely cropping the composition, bringing in the walls and excluding a visible doorknob.