RIHA Journal 0202 | 30 November 2018

Friendship in Representation

The Collaborative Portraits by Jeanna Bauck and Bertha Wegmann

Carina Rech
Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University

Over a quarter-century, the Scandinavian artists Jeanna Bauck and Bertha Wegmann painted a series of portraits and interiors in which they commented upon their shared identity as women artists while migrating between the artistic centers of Munich, Paris, and Copenhagen. Drawing from feminist and performance theory, and concentrating on three paintings in which Bauck and Wegmann imagine one another as emerging professional artists by mediated self-representation, the paper discusses the two artists’ collaborative practices. The artists’ correspondence with their mutual friend and colleague Hildegard Thorell, kept in the archive of Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, is presented here for the first time and provides important insights into their artistic companionship. This case study forms part of an ongoing dissertation project on Nordic women painters’ self-representations in the late nineteenth century.


[1] This paper explores a series of friendship portraits created by the Scandinavian painters Jeanna Bauck (1840-1926) and Bertha Wegmann (1846-1926). Drawing on performative approaches to portraiture, which highlight the sitter’s share in the making of an image, I understand the works as collaborative endeavors in (self-) representation. Through their mediated self-representation, I argue that Bauck and Wegmann developed a shared identity in painting, thereby exploring new ways of visualizing their professional role and challenging late nineteenth-century gender hierarchies. Beyond providing close readings of three selected paintings, this article presents comprehensive, to this day unpublished archival evidence from the estate of their close friend Hildegard Thorell (1850-1930), a fellow artist. The correspondence between the three colleagues reveals not only new, critical information on the paintings and their creation, but also pays vivid testimony to the sense of community among aspiring women artists in that period.

Role Reversal in the Studio

[2] In the beginning of the movie The Danish Girl (2015), the camera enters the Copenhagen workshop of the art nouveau painter Gerda Wegener (1886-1940), played by Alicia Vikander. An unknown and rather stiff gentleman has taken a seat on a small pedestal to have his portrait painted, apparently feeling quite uncomfortable. As he tries to get a glimpse of the canvas on which the artist is working, Wegener observes him closely and picks up on his uneasiness. Rather amused and smoking a cigarette, she ironically comments upon his behavior: "It’s hard for a man to be looked at by a woman. Women are used to it of course, but for a man to submit to a woman’s gaze …. It’s unsettling."1 In this initial scene, Gerda Wegener refers to the common rules of the gaze and gender hierarchies in art, as they traditionally play out between a male artist and his female model in the studio space.

[3] This theme of reversed gazes plays a crucial role in an interior painting by the Swedish artist Jeanna Bauck, which probably originated in the 1870s in Munich (Fig. 1). It shows a scene strikingly similar to the above-mentioned filmic encounter. Bauck has depicted her fellow colleague and friend, the Dane Bertha Wegmann painting the portrait of a Bourgeois gentleman sitting in a chair in the artist’s studio. Through Bauck’s eyes we are observing Wegmann at work. Speaking with Wegener in the film scene, the male sitter has to submit to a double female gaze: that of Wegmann studying her model, and that of Bauck observing the sitting. If we include the beholder’s gaze coming from outside the picture plane, it adds up to three observers, and the genre scene from a portraitist’s studio turns into a comment on women artists’ social position and gender hierarchies in nineteenth-century visual culture. The studio eventually unfolds as a space in which subversive acts in representing female artistic agency become possible.

1 Jeanna Bauck, The Danish Artist Bertha Wegmann Painting a Portrait, 1870s, oil on canvas, 100 x 110 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (Public domain)

[4] The painting’s unusual subject matter reverses the patriarchal economy of the gaze in an immediate manner.2 In her influential article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey employed psychoanalytic theory to argue that classic Hollywood movies inevitably put the spectator in a masculine subject position, while the woman on screen figures as an object of desire for the male gaze.3 Mulvey’s argument holds true for the underlying gendered dynamics of vision in the nineteenth century, according to which men were to embody active looking, while women were to be looked at or displayed.4 However, as Alexandra K. Wettlaufer recently has claimed in relation to the nineteenth-century French and British contexts,

Significant numbers of women artists worked within and against structures of the gaze to claim a (contested) subject position, and the radical image of a female subject representing the world presented an unmistakable challenge to social and aesthetic ideologies with a canny nod to the power of vision.5

Accordingly, in her studio interior Jeanna Bauck subverts patriarchal structures of the gaze and counteracts the objectification of women in painting.

[5] Presumably, contemporary observers would immediately have reacted upon the unusual subject matter of a woman painter. In 1895, Bertha Wegmann attracted attention both in the Danish and Swedish press, when she refused to visit a portrait commissioner for a sitting in his home, even though it was the prime minister J. B. S. Estrup. Instead, she insisted upon executing the portrait in her studio. The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet accounted for the incident under the unmistakably ironic headline One Who Estrup Could Not Subdue, stating that Estrup eventually had to look for another portraitist, as both artist and sitter had refused to give in.6

[6] The subversive role reversal in the studio contrasts with the conventional representation of the interior itself. As in many other studio interiors of the time, seemingly without any systemization furniture, objects, requisites, paintings, casts, replicas and the like are arranged in artful disarray. One can detect numerous objects in the two women’s shared studio, all of them delicately rendered, ranging from a portfolio containing drawings and prints to a replica of the Venus de Milo on the chest of drawers in the back. A parasol emulating Asian style adds that little twist of exoticism that every decent studio was supposed to possess. In front of the window to the right some plants, a wine bottle, a collection of paint brushes and a hand mirror form an old-masterly still life. The interior balances between some sort of gentle bohemianism, humble inwardness and rooted domesticity, which is commonly found in nineteenth-century historicist studio interiors.7 On the back wall one can make out the outlines of a portrait head, which I suggest may be Woman in Black by Bertha Wegmann from 1872 (Fig. 2).8 The composition, consisting of a veiled person dressed in black and represented in profile next to a trapezoid shape, although executed rather sketchily, clearly corresponds to the painting in the Nationalmuseum collection.