08 juin 2020

A self-portrait of Augusta Roszmann is part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel. But who was the Belgian painter?

On the first floor of the Kunstmuseum Basel | Hauptbau two self-portraits are simultaneously displayed in one room. Although both paintings were completed in the same decade and the artists are of approximately the same age, the works differ significantly in terms of expression, pictorial style and intention. After the portrait of O. W. Roederstein already being the subject of an earlier review, the focus lies now on "Self-Portrait in front of the Easel" by the Belgian artist Augusta Roszmann. The painting is a donation by the artist to the museum and depicts her aged between 26 and 30. A note on the stretcher bears the illuminating dedication: “Je lègue cette toile au / musée de Bale. / fait à l’atelier Julian / professor J. Lefèbvre / année 1885-1890 / A. Roszmann”. Little is known about the painter who lived in Belgium, Paris and Basel. What a fortunate coincidence that in 2019 Juri Schmidhauser brought more light into the life and work of this artist with his seminar paper. The following biographical information is thus based on his research. We are deeply indebted to Juri for his contribution.

The artist was born in 1859 as Augusta Charlotte Cornelie Roszmann into a wealthy family in Ghent. In 1883 she moved to Paris to start her studies at the Académie Julian, that she successfully completed in the mid-1890s. When her father died in 1885, she probably no longer received financial support. This is indicated by several applications for scholarships to the city of Ghent. Until 1896 she regularly showed her work in the Salons of Paris. Roszmann established herself as a promising portrait painter in the exhibition landscape and was awarded various prizes: In 1889 she received a Mention Honorable, in 1893 she participated in the World Exhibition in Chicago and in 1900 she was honoured with the bronze medal at the World Exhibition in Paris. As artiste peintre Roszmann earned her living through the sale of paintings. This was quite an exception, since gainful employment in the 19th century was not intended for women. In 1895 she joined her artist friend Louise Amans, whom she had met at the Académie Julian, and who lived at the Schützenmattstrasse in Basel. Roszmann resided there for over 40 years. As of 1900 she regularly exhibited at the Kunsthalle Basel and in further Swiss and European cities. Due to her connection to wealthy local families she was commissioned to realize portraits and to teach private classes. This possibly is what moved her to donate her self-portrait to the Kunstmuseum. Roszmann returned to Ghent only a couple of years before her death.

How does the artist depict herself in her self-portrait from the Parisian period? With earnest, confident, and sober expression, the young woman with the strikingly dark eyes faces us. With her hair loosely tucked up and dressed in a simple, blue grey painter's robe, casually gathered over her chest and laced at the waist, she sits slightly turned away on a chair in front of a stretched canvas. The fixed linen fabric on the edge of the stretcher is visible on the left, while in the lower part of the painting a glimpse of the palette can be caught. Two small bright red and white splotches indicate the composition of the flesh tones and contrast with the merging, homogenous loose brushwork of blue grey, green, and ocher tones. Overall the painting style is closer to impressionism than it is to Roederstein – however, without claiming its principles. The subdued lighting shines in from above, emphasizing the artist's shoulders and highlighting her forehead and nose, as well as the doorknob and the back of the chair.

The background is of particular interest. Painted in cool shades of green, it is divided into two areas by fine strips. The upper section is brighter than the lower. On the left, a doorway is visible. A framed painting showing the sketch of a building emerges behind the artist's left shoulder. The suspended cast models are particularly remarkable. Such plaster moulds had been widely common in artists' studios and schools since the 16th century and were used, among other things, to study the human body. In addition to castings of antiques, there were also some based on real life models.

The Académie Julian, where Roszmann studied, was one of the few institutions at that time that allowed women to study the nude. On the left of the artist's head, a pair of eyes suggests the fragment of a face’s cast. On the right one recognises most probably the cast of a hand and of a male head. This is not an antique head, but rather a more recent study: maybe an altered death mask or a live cast. On the far right, beyond the edge of the painting, the shoulder section of a bust is seen. Furthermore, one can catch the partial glimpse of a figurine that is being largely covered by the artist's body. (Many thanks to Tomas Lochmann)

The self-portrait of Augusta Roszmann not only is an interesting document of contemporary history, but also raises the desire to discover more about her work. It represents a time of upheaval, when female artists increasingly entered the academies and appeared in the first international exhibitions. In her painting, Augusta Roszmann depicts herself in the act of the artistic work, indicating the tradition of her profession and referring to her studies at the academy. The painting was probably executed in one of the studios of the Académie Julian under Professor Jules Lefèbvre. Even though little is known about Roszmann and many other female artists of the 19th century, she seems to have been a successful artist during her lifetime. Her work deserves higher appreciation and greater recognition.

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