An Introduction to Bertha Wegmann
Bertha Wegmann (1847-1926) was a Danish painter of extraordinary skill and dedication. She is considered one of the most significant painters of the Danish Realism movement. She was among a small number of women artists of the period to be recognized and respected for her work in her own day and was one of the first professional female artists in Denmark to be in fierce demand as a portrait painter. It is said that after the famous Danish portrait painter P.S. Krøyer died in 1909, Wegmann became the undisputed leader of the portrait field in Denmark, among painters of all genders. She painted the luminaries of her day as well as numerous paintings of her family and friends, and she also painted landscapes, still life, and genre scenes. Her output was prodigious as she rarely let a day go by without painting or sketching, even when traveling or visiting.
While ambitious and hard-working, she also had a calm and caring nature. She was a complex person who blazed trails, broke stereotypes and cracked so many of the glass ceilings of her time, yet was a popular and loyal friend to many, a loving sister and a zealous champion of other artists, especially women artists.
Wegmann was born in Switzerland, but because her family moved to Denmark when she was five years old, she is considered a thoroughly Danish artist. Like many artists, she showed an interest in drawing from an early age. Her mother died when she was ten, but her art-loving father, who was an amateur painter himself, encouraged her. Because she was busy helping with the household and her siblings, she did not begin her formal art studies until she was nineteen.
At age twenty-one, she went to Munich to further her studies at the feet of various masters, intending to become a painter of historical subjects. While her technique blossomed rapidly, she found herself dissatisfied with the stuffy academic atmosphere of the Munich academies. The breeze of new art was beginning to blow across Europe, wafting from such instigators at the French Impressionists and the Italian Macchiaioli group. Wegmann made friends with Swedish painter Jeanna Bauck, and the two began painting out of doors, taking several painting trips to Italy, before moving together to Paris in 1881.
Around this time the two friends painted each other with the tools of their trade, large palettes in hand. These beautiful paintings remain among the most striking and notable of each artist’s oeuvre.
Wegmann exhibited at her first Paris salon in 1880 and received an "honorable mention," first of many such public recognitions of her immense talent. She went on to win numerous silver and gold medals from the salon over the years to come.
In 1883 Wegmann moved back to Denmark. While she had not lived there for several years, she was already known through work she had continued to send to annual exhibitions at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. The year she relocated to her homeland, a portrait she painted of her sister was awarded the Thorvaldsen Medal, one of the highest honors conferred in the Danish art world. She was only the second woman to win this accolade. The charming painting shows her sister with her knitting in hand and showing a very engaging expression of grave sweetness, even playfulness. When this painting is compared to contemporaneous photographs of the artist, a strong family resemblance is evident, and it is clear that Wegmann was a master at conveying both likeness and complex human expressions.
Her work continued to impress and amaze her peers, and four years later, she became the first woman to hold a chair at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. For the next thirty years, she was also a board member of Drawing and Art Industrial School for Women.
She continued to exhibit widely in Denmark and other areas of Europe, winning several more medals from the Paris salon. In 1892, she became one of the first women to receive the Danish royal Ingenio et arti medal, a medal awarded to prominent scientists and artists. The honor, a personal award of the Danish monarch, could be awarded to women as well as men, though Wegmann was among the first recipients representing her gender. The artist also represented Denmark at several world's fairs, including the famous World Columbian in Chicago in 1893.
After a long life of continual artistic achievement, respected leadership, and continued innovation, she died “with her boots on,” a death most artists dream of, suddenly dying one day while working in her studio.
Bertha Wegmann achieved an unparalleled career at a time when it was especially difficult for a woman to forge any kind of independent life. In her work we can see the stages she went through as an artist and as a human being. It is not clear why she disappeared so quickly from art history’s accounts when she was one of the leading figures of the art scene of her day. This question along with a deep dive into her work and her life will be the subject of a museum exhibition in Spring 2021 at the Hirschsprung Museum in Denmark.