04 mai 2020

A rare early self-portrait of the Swiss painter Ottilie Roederstein is part of our collection. It's a perfect example for our guided tour series "Inspired by her" on current female positions at the Kunstmuseum Basel.

The young woman looks at us boldly, with her head turned slightly to the left and with clear eyes. She seems aware of her effect. Light-coloured, the incarnate features stand out against the dark stand-up collar of the ancient garment, while the dark blonde hair curls untamed over ear, temple and neck. The light falls in from the right, illuminating the left half of the face and leaving the right half in shadow. All pictorial elements of the three-quarter view are worked out plastically with a fine brush. The painting is painted on wood in the manner of the old masters, its habitus even reminding us of Renaissance portraits.

No jewellery adorns the young woman, but her bright red beret catches the eye, a rather unusual headdress for women at that time. The originally male headgear, also called French cap, worn by artists such as Rodin, Picasso and Gauguin, only later reached feminine honours, one thinks of Marlene Dietrich. In the female hat fashion of the time, flowers, feathers and frills were preferred, as contemporary portraits suggest. In Roederstein's self-portrait, the red beret is not only an eye-catcher but also a program. It gives the wearer a distinguished, but also daring expression. The reference to France is given by an inscription in French at the upper edge of the picture: "O.W. Roederstein peinte par elle même 1894". Authorship and motif are thus clearly identified. The artist had not only studied in Paris, she also exhibited the self-portrait in the same year in the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts on the Champs de Mars in Paris.

Who might she have been, this headstrong person? The portrait is associated with an eventful biography. Before the turn of the century, social conventions prevented women from studying art at an academy. Roederstein succeeded in realizing her wish to become a painter against the resistance of society and parents and took lessons with Eduard Pfyffer (1836-1899) in Zurich in 1876. In 1879 she entered the studio of Karl Gussow (1843-1907) in Berlin to continue her artistic training from 1882 to 1887 in Paris with Carolus Duran, Jean-Jacques Henner and in the studio of Luc Olivier Merson.

In addition to painting still lifes and landscapes, she made a name for herself as a portraitist and was already able to make a living from it in the 1880s. During this time she met her future partner: The physician Elisabeth Winterhalter (1856-1952), who was studying medicine in Zurich at the time and went down in history as the first female surgeon in Germany. The two women openly lived a same-sex relationship - a taboo at that time. They were committed to the education and study of their sex. Roederstein established a foundation for destitute female painters, Winterhalter a polyclinic. At the time the self-portrait was created, the two were living in Frankfurt am Main. A photograph shows Roederstein wearing the aforementioned headgear in the studio of the Staedelsche Kunstschule.

Self-portraits played an important role in her work throughout her life. Of 84 known paintings, drawings and etchings, 23 are still preserved in their original form. The present painting is one of the few early self-portraits that can be found. It must have been important for her, as it also served as a model for a later etching. She confidently places herself in a male-dominated tradition of art and emphasizes her painterly standpoint. Internationally acclaimed during her lifetime, her name, like that of many other female artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, has today fallen into oblivion. An opportunity to rediscover her will be offered at the end of the year in a monographic special exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich.

Written by: Iris Kretzschmar, art historian, art mediator and freelance author