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Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, Artist
  • Artist Hanna Pauli (Swedish, 1864 - 1940)
  • TitleVenny Soldan-Brofeldt, Artist
  • Dating 1886 - 1887
  • Technique/MaterialOil on canvas
  • Dimensions125,5 x 134 cm
    139 x 148 x 6 cm
  • AcquisitionPurchase, 1911
  • CategoryOil painting
  • Inventory NumberGKM 0444
  • Display StatusOn display in The Charles XII Hall (Room 15)
Signatures etc.
Exhibition History
/The Canon: Perspectives on Swedish Art Historiography/
Hanna Pauli’s portrait of the artist’s friend Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, who casually sits on the floor with a lump of clay in her hand, is an example of a work of art whose position in the canon has changed.

Previously, it had no prominent place in Swedish art history. Since the 1980s, when it adorned the cover of the exhibition catalogue They Went to Paris: Nordic artists in the 1880s (Liljevalchs konsthall 1988), it has, on the other hand, been highlighted in the overview works. Since then the painting has been shown more frequently in the museum and is seen as one of the museum’s highlights. It is also a vivid depiction of the life of female artists in Paris during the 1880s.
/The Canon: Perspectives on Swedish Art Historiography/

The famous portrait of the artist Venny Soldan-Brofeldt was painted in their shared studio in Montparnasse in Paris in 1887. Pauli has portrayed her friend sitting on the floor, leaning forward with outstretched legs. The woman looks up at us with her mouth half open. She has her right hand on the floor to steady herself, while in her left she is holding a small lump of clay. On the floor are some clay-working tools and a study of a female nude.

Soldan-Brofeldt is shown in the midst of the creative process. She is sitting on a large piece of paper spattered with paint, shown by the wilder use of colour. She is wearing a black dress with her sleeves rolled up, and plain slippers on her feet. Behind her is a Japanese folding screen with bird motifs. To the left, painted sketches are pinned to the wall, and in the background we see the back of a stretched canvas. In the dark at the back of the picture we can make out a sculpture of a couple united in an intense kiss. The painting is in muted colours, with greyish-green and greyish-red tones, black, and ochre.

The room is spartan, but that leaves all the more space for free creativity, far from the social duties of the family at home. Female artists’ friendships were important in a male-dominated art world, where women artists were often regarded with suspicion or scornful forbearance. In Paris, many of the Nordic women artists found a freedom that was denied them on their return to their homelands in the 1890s. Hanna Pauli herself described the circumstances of the portrait in an amusedly Romantic vein:

"We had no major debts at the time. The studio was extremely cold and damp; my Finnish friend had to sit wearing a muff when I painted her. In the bedroom the damp ran down the walls, and there was only a small skylight in the roof. The material side of life troubled us very little at all … Moreover, my friend and I almost always plodded around in slippers; it saved so on shoe-leather and it was so very comfortable."

To show a woman seated in such a relaxed manner was bold for the time: it was considered improper for middle-class women to be so unrefined in their dress and conduct. Pauli has here portrayed a new type of woman, free from the trammels of the bourgeois idea of womanhood. The model’s seated pose may have been inspired by Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting Haymaking from 1878, which Pauli would probably have seen in reproduction. (Bastien-Lepage was a Realist painter who was the subject of a commemorative exhibition in Paris in 1885.) The Swedish critics praised the painting for its vivid characterization, but were less taken with its colouring, which was considered dull and dry.

In Hanna Pauli’s limited œuvre, her portrait of Venny Soldan-Brofeldt is one of her greatest accomplishments. It is a record of an artistic life on the Continent, with the promise of a free and equal artistic life that was never realized, despite her successes.

Kristoffer Arvidsson from The Collection Gothenburg Museum of Art, Gothenburg 2014