(Warsaw 1819 – 1881 Copenhagen)
Portrait of an Italian Revolutionary
Oil on canvas
18 x 13 ½ inches (46 x 34.3 cm)
Private Collection, Copenhagen
Private Collection, New York
In her lifetime the work of Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann was greatly acclaimed across Europe, but especially in Denmark, her adopted country where she lived for the majority of her career. She contributed paintings to the World’s Fair in Paris (1855 and 1867), London (1862), and Vienna (1873). At an exhibition in London in 1852, her works caught the attention of Queen Victoria, who requested a private exhibition at Buckingham Palace and acquired her portrait of an Icelandic woman now in The Royal Collection. She achieved considerable success as a portraitist, and painted several members of European royalty and aristocracy, as well as fellow artists and other notable people of her time. An intimate Self-portrait at age thirty-one reveals the sensitivity of Baumann, both as artist and subject, while a later portrait photograph presents her as a consummate professional, at a table easel—brush, palette and mahlstick in hand—intently studying the subject that she is painting (Figs. 1-2).
Baumann was born to German parents in Warsaw, Poland. At the age of nineteen she entered the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf—then one of the premier art centers in Europe—and spent her formative years working in the context of the Düsseldorf school. Her early subject matter was drawn from Polish life and her native country’s struggles during its rebellion against Russia. Her paintings of a destitute Polish family in the ruins of their burned hut and of a refugee mother with a child were exhibited in Cologne and sold to prominent European collectors. The earnings from these early sales allowed her to travel to Italy—an essential part of artistic development in the early nineteenth century.
Baumann arrived in Rome in 1845. There, she met her husband, the renowned sculptor Jens Adolf Jerichau, who was a member of the circle of Danish artists living in the Eternal City. Baumann wrote of her time in Rome that it “opened my senses and activated my inner balance.” Paintings from Baumann’s Italian period were primarily of local life and people. Her celebrated Italy of 1859—now in the collection of the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina—symbolized the turmoil of Italy before its unification and was much admired when exhibited in London (Fig. 3).
Our portrait is among the more inspired and natural works of Baumann’s oeuvre. While she intentionally painted some of her portraits in a sentimental style popular at the time, the portraits that contain the degree of psychological insight and intrigue found here are among her finest. The sitter is a young Italian man, likely an Italian revolutionary, as suggested by his attire and “Ernani” hat, famously worn by revolutionaries participating in the struggle to unify Italy in this period. Beyond painting likenesses of celebrated people that she encountered, Baumann’s experience of upheaval in revolutionary Poland would certainly have drawn her to depict an Italian revolutionary.
Baumann rejected the stifling norms of her day and was unrivalled in her ability to infuse a sense of intimacy and warmth into her male portraits. Here she presents the sitter closely cropped, creating an intimate encounter between the viewer and the young man depicted. She wrote of the place of sensuality in art: “Opinions will be divided on this, but for myself I have to confess that, if it were forbidden for art to illustrate the sensuous, then my position would be that such a rule would be against the Arts, especially the very nature of the art of painting, which understands and observes with the senses and must therefore employ them as the means to enjoy sensuous creations.”
Danish art historian Anna Schram Vejlby has noted that, surprisingly for the era, in this portrait we observe the female gaze operating upon a young beautiful man in a way more commonly associated with a male artist portraying a woman he admired. That Baumann did not let the conventions of the day decide how she should approach a depiction of a young man is not surprising. She was deeply engaged in the cause of women’s emancipation and in redefining the position of women within the arts and in other vocations. Baumann was among the first female members of the Danish Royal Academy of Arts.
There has been renewed scholarly and curatorial interest in Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann’s art, her life, and the artistic careers of her progeny. This has culminated in the comprehensive catalogue of her work by Jerzy Miskowiak published in 2018, as well as the extensive biography of her grandson, the modernist painter J. A. Jerichau, who had a short but prolific career in Paris in the early twentieth century. Today, Baumann’s works can be found in the National Gallery of Denmark, The Royal Collection, UK, The National Museum Sweden, The Royal Collection, Denmark, The Royal Castle of Warsaw, among others.
Our portrait is presented in a period frame from Danish framemaker and gilder to the Royal Court W. J. Mogensen.
Martin Philip Guise