Anna Rosina de Gasc
My sketch of Anna Rosina de Gasc's self-portrait that hangs in the Städtisches Museum, Braunschweig
Anna Rosina de Gasc (1716–1783)
Let’s start with a question: how many great female artists can you name? Don’t worry if you are struggling – you are not alone. Unless you are an art historian, the chances are that you will be able to count the woman artists you have heard of on one hand. And this is hardly surprising: the artistic canon is so male dominated as to create the impression that there simply weren’t any women working as professional artists in earlier centuries, or that if there were, their output must have been of significantly inferior quality to their male counterparts’.
I realise I am hardly making an original point by highlighting the severe underrepresentation of women artists in the history of art. In fact after I wrote the opening line of this post, I found out that I had unconsciously alluded to the title of a seminal 1971 essay called “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Linda Nochlin, in which, somewhat dismayingly, she reasserts the assumption made in the essay title that there has indeed never been a supremely great woman artist, but goes on to argue that this is down to the institutional and cultural restrictions historically placed on women, and does not indicate the female sex’s innate inability to achieve great artistic feats. Well duh. It’s slightly shocking that this was considered a groundbreaking argument as late as the 1970s. Whether or not you think there are female artists deserving of the accolade “great” depends on your definition of greatness, of course. In terms of iconic status, emotional punch and sheer crowd-pulling power, look no further than Frida Kahlo – I will never forget queuing up at 6.30 in the morning along with hundreds of other people to make sure we got into the 2010 retrospective in Berlin. But I don’t want to get into arguing the case for female greatness in art here – after all, I am well into the second paragraph of this post and haven’t even mentioned Braunschweig yet. At any rate, what is certainly true is that there have been many highly accomplished female artists producing works that were on a par with their male peers. Berlin’s Verborgene (“hidden”) Museum for women’s art was set up in 1986 after an analysis of the collections in Berlin’s museums revealed that these contained works by more than 500 female artists, most of whom were completely unknown, since their work had been hidden from public view and academic appraisal – hence the museum’s name. And even now in the 21st century, our awareness of female artists generally remains limited, as I highlighted in the introduction. The task of rediscovering, sharing and celebrating their work is thus an ongoing one.
And so, at last, we come to the subject of today’s blog post, the painter Anna Rosina de Gasc. Born in Berlin to a family of Polish descent, she went on to have a highly successful career as a portraitist. In 1764, she was appointed as court painter by Duchess Philippine Charlotte, wife of Duke Carl I of Braunschweig, and became the leading artist at the Braunschweig court, producing portraits of many prominent Braunschweigers and training both male and female apprentices. Today, she is considered to be one of the most important German female painters of the 18th century.
Another self-portrait from 1767
As you would expect, would-be women artists of this time had some pretty major handicaps – those institutional barriers examined in Nochlin’s essay. For example, they were banned from running their own workshops and were generally barred entry to the artistic academies (a practice that was in no small part predicated on the horrifying idea that female trainee artists might see men in the buff, due to the emphasis on studies of the male nude in a traditional artistic education). However, Anna Rosina had the fortune to have an artist father, which was generally the only way that a woman could acquire the training she would need to become a professional artist. Georg Lisiewski was a painter at the Prussian court, and must have had some truly excellent genes, because three of his children (Anna, her younger sister and one of her brothers) and four of his grandchildren were to become prominent artists. We can also assume that he was rather a good teacher, as well as an admirably open-minded father when it came to gender equality. Hooray for him. Anna Rosina initially worked in Georg’s workshop, but also took on her own commissions, including three portraits of the future Catherine the Great.
Anna Rosina de Gasc was married twice, first to a fellow painter, David Matthieu and then, after his death, to Ludwig de Gasc. One aspect of her life that impressed me was that she didn’t give up painting following her marriage, as I have encountered in other female artists’ biographies. On the contrary, she and her first husband operated a joint workshop, which was apparently a very successful set-up, since the names Matthieu and Lisiewska (interesting that she continued to use her maiden name) turn up in many art collections in Northern Germany. Their children all received an artistic education and became painters.
In 1757 Anna Rosina received a major commission from Prince Friedrich August to paint portraits for the Salon de beautés at his Baroque palace, Schloss Zerbst. Over a 10-year period, she painted 40 of the 72 beauties (ladies at court) in this gallery, which the prince presumably then spent a lot of time ogling. I assumed that these paintings were still in existence and wanted to have a look at some of these 18th century lovelies, but a bit of research revealed that Schloss Zerbst was destroyed by allied bombs in the Second World War – one of those chilling end-of-the-war tales of a defiant Nazi who refused to give in to American instructions to hand over the property, leading to the whole thing being bombed to bits. Today, only the East Wing remains, and there is no mention of a Salon de beautés, so I can only presume that Anna Rosina’s forty portraits did not survive the wartime destruction and looting that followed. Still, an internet image search reveals plenty of other works and gives a good idea of her oeuvre: think lots of powdered wigs, beribboned bodices and luminous décolletés, sumptuous velvet coats and thoughtful, intelligent faces.
Portrait of Maria Antonia von Branconi, mistress of Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel
Portrait of Gotthold Emphaim Lessing, who held a post as librarian at the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel
She spent the final years of her life not in Braunschweig but in Dresden, where she had been appointed a member of the art academy in 1769 – presumably a triumphant moment for her. She had enjoyed several decades of artistic achievement and commercial success, which I suppose obliged those academy bigwigs (although actually men’s wigs were comparatively modest affairs by this point) to acknowledge that despite being a lady, she was, gasp, actually quite good at painting and quite popular. And her appointment wasn’t an isolated case – in 1768, Mary Moser and Angelika Kaufmann had been among the founding members of the Royal Academy in London, and were duly included in Johann Zoffany’s group portrait The Academicians of the Royal Academy. However, the pair are famously depicted as portraits on the wall rather than being physically present in the room alongside the legions of bewigged, white-stockinged male academicians. This banishment of the female artists is ostensibly justified by the presence of male life models at the gathering – yup, those nudey men are the problem again. But historian Amanda Vickery writes that for many commentators Zoffany’s painting is “depressing confirmation that female institutional accreditation was grudging and tokenistic at best.” And there was no change of policy when it came to female exclusion from life drawing classes, although a photo from the 1850s taken at the Pennsylvania Academy shows a novel solution to this problem: the female students have been permitted an unclothed model of sorts, but it is bovine rather than human. Access to nude models was an important prerequisite for history painting, which was considered the be-all-and-end-all of artistic genres. So a woman like De Gasc was excluded from what were deemed to be the highest echelons of artistic achievement – her speciality, portraiture, was considered of lesser importance.
Johan Zoffany, The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771–72, with Angelika Kaufmann and Mary Moser depicted in portraits on the wall on the right of the picture
Personally though, I would rather look at a room of portraits of real people than gaze upon those vast history canvases, which more often than not seem to feature writhing nakedness and the grisly dénouement of some classical or biblical tale that I have only a vague knowledge of. I suppose my love of portraits shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, considering the title of my blog. If, like me, you are fascinated by period costume, historical portraiture offers some serious eye-candy: all those silks, velvets, embroidery and lace, richly coloured and rendered in ravishing detail. But that is just one enjoyable aspect of this genre. Standing in front of a portrait, you feel a sense of connection with the sitter, especially if they look you directly in the eye, perhaps as if they were about to engage you in an intimate tete-a-tete. In a future post I will be focusing on one of Anna Rosina De Gasc’s portraits in particular, Elisabeth Christine Ulrike as Aurora, and telling the fascinating story of the woman it depicts. Watch this space!
Frauen aus Braunschweig, Gabriele Armenat, 1991
“Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?”, Linda Nochlin
“Hidden from history: the Royal Academy’s female founders”, Amanda Vickery