In my recent blogs looking at the life of Marie Bashkirtseff, I talked about the time she spent studying art at the Académie Julian in Paris and her rivalry with her fellow artist Louise Breslau. Despite the wealthy lifestyle of Bashkirtseff she was still constantly jealous of Breslau, who she perceived as her rival at the academy. She was also very jealous of Breslau’s friendship with contemporary artists such as Edgar Degas. So today, I thought I should dedicate this blog to her rival, and look at the life and works of the German-born artist, Louise Breslau.
Maria Luise Katharina Breslau, who would later be known simply as Louise Catherine Breslau, was born in Munich in December 1856 but spent much of her early life in Zurich. She was born into a prosperous middle-class family. Louise had three younger sisters Marie-Henrietta, Emma and Bernadette. Her father was an eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist and in 1858 he and his family moved to Zurich where he took up a position as head physician in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University Hospital of Zurich.
Louise suffered badly from asthma when she was young and was often confined to her bed and it was due to this enforced confinement, that to pass the time and counter loneliness, she immersed herself in reading and also developed a love of sketching.
In 1866, When Louise was nine years old, her father died of staph infection which he contracted during the execution of a postmortem examination. Louise, even though still very young, was tasked with helping her mother to bring up her three younger sisters. When her health worsened, she spent some time in a convent near to Lake Constance where with its warmer climate it was hoped that her health would improve. It was during her stay at the convent that she became more interested in art and she continued to sketch and paint during her teenage years. Her love of art and her artistic ability became apparent to her mother who persuaded Louise to attend the drawing classes of the local Swiss portrait painter, Eduard Pfyffer. She excelled under his tuition but after a while she believed that she had learnt all she could from Pfyffer and she wanted her art to be more than just a pleasing hobby. All young ladies of a certain class, besides learning about domestic skills, were also encouraged to be able to play a musical instrument and be able to paint or sketch. However, Louise wanted art not to be just a pleasant pastime, she wanted to become a professional artist and to achieve this she knew she had to leave Switzerland, move to the European capital of art, Paris, and enrol at a specialist art academy. In 1876 she went to Paris but like many other female artists who wanted the best art training that Paris could offer, she was disappointed with the ruling of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts that only male artists would be allowed to enter their hallowed establishment. This sexist ruling did not change until 1897. So, like Bashkirtseff, she enrolled at the Académie Julian who catered for aspiring female painters.
Her fellow students at the Académie Julian included the Ukrainian artist, Marie Bashkirtseff, Madeleine Zillhardt, the French painter, Sophie Schäppi who, like Louise, had come to Paris from Switzerland and the Irish painter, Sarah Purser. Louise excelled at the academy and was looked upon by her tutors as one of their best students and this fact did not lie well with Marie Bashkirtseff who was inordinately jealous of her fellow student. In 1879, Louise Breslau, Sophie Schäppi and the singer Maria Fuller moved into a large apartment in the Avenue des Thermes and that same year Breslau had her painting entitled Tout passé accepted at the Paris Salon. This was a great achievement not only for Louise but also for the female atelier of Académie Julian.
Two years later, in 1881, she received an honourable mention at that year’s Salon for her triple portrait entitled, Les amies (Portrait of Friends). In it we see her friends Maria Feller on the left, Sophie Schäppi in the centre and Louise on the right, with a white dog sitting on top of the scarlet tablecloth. It is a painting in which we see the three females in a reflective mood. The painting is now housed in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva. Louise Breslau was now acknowledged as an up-and-coming artist. She opened her own studio and soon started to receive numerous commissions for her work from the wealthy of Paris society.
In 1883 she was commissioned by the owner of the French newspaper Le Figaro to paint a portrait of his daughter. She completed the commission and exhibited the painting entitled Isabelle de Rodays at the 1883 Salon. She also exhibited another of her works, Five O’clock Tea at that year’s Salon and this can now be found at the Berne Kunstmuseum.
In 1885 Louis Breslau completed another great work entitled Chez Soi which is a portrayal of her mother and sister in an interior setting. The dog sits at the feet of her mother and this genre piece exudes an air of silent contemplation. The painting resides in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
The friendship between Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt would last a lifetime and she would appear in many of her paintings. After a brief affair in 1886 with the sculptor Jean Carriès, whom she met through Jules Breton, Louise Breslau chose to share her life with Madeleine Zillhardt and in 1902 the two women moved to a studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine where they set up home.
She eventually became the third woman artist, and the first foreign woman artist to be bestowed France’s Legion of Honour award. During World War I Breslau, although by this time a naturalised Swiss citizen, and Zillhardt, remained at their home at Neuilly. Breslau showed her patriotism towards her new country, France, by drawing numerous portraits of French soldiers and nurses on their way to the Front. Louise was sixty-two years of age when the war ended and she began to withdraw from public view and was contented to stay at home and sit in her garden, painting flowers but she still loved to entertain her friends.
Louise Catherine Breslau died in May 1927, aged 70 after suffering from a long and debilitating illness. Most of her estate went to her good friend and long-time companion Madeleine Zillhardt. As per her wishes Louise Breslau’s body was taken to the small Swiss town of Baden where she was buried next to her mother.
Unlike Bashkirtseff, who died at the age of 25, Breslau had many years to forge her artistic reputation. Bashkirtseff sadly knew, when she was told that she was dying, that she would never have the time to be able to build up such an artistic reputation as Breslau but of course Bashkirtseff will always be remembered for her diaries. The works of art of Louise Breslau were very popular when she was alive but sadly, after she died, she was almost forgotten.