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Friday, December 27, 2013

Albert Samuel Anker

Sleeping Boy in the Hay, Albert Anker
Mary-Go-Round, 1975, Jim Lane,
My own genre of genre.
I like genre painting. I know, as a modern-day writer who expounds upon art from all eras, I'm not supposed to. I'm supposed to find it quaint, syrupy sweet, sentimental, and even "cute." The problem is, I've been known to paint genre subjects from time to time so I dare not distance myself too far from such art. Technically, "genre" (pronounced, JON-ra) means a type, sort, kind, or category. How such a designation came to be applied to household scenes, and more generally, to common daily social interactions from various eras? I'm not sure. In researching the term, it appears no one else is either. In fact, the word is sometimes used so broadly it gets subdivided into a hierarchy of genre works with history painting at the top and still-lifes or architectural scenes at the bottom--which is probably more than you really wanted to know on the subject. Suffice to say the term may have evolved by default--no one quite knew what to call this genre of painting so they called it simply "genre."
The Village School, Albert Anker
Albert Anker Self-portrait, 1891
Though such work has long been looked down upon by proponents of "high" art, everyone else seems to have some affection for it. Yes, it can be overly sweet, cutesy, and sentimental, yet that may be one of the reason many people seem to like it. But, it can also be quite the opposite, harsh, brisk, strident, even downright ugly. It's life at the most basic level, and, as we all know, life can be beautiful, but it can also be all those other things as well. Genre painters have existed since the Egyptians started marking up their walls to the present day. We all know of Norman Rockwell and the other Saturday Evening Post artists who, for the most part, painted genre. But one of the best I've ever encountered was the Swiss painter, Albert Samuel Anker.

Sunday School Walk, 1872, Albert Anker--a field trip, literally to a field.
Little Girl Knitting, Albert Anker
Albert Anker was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1831, the son of a veterinarian. As so often happened in centuries past, his family encouraged him to be anything but an artist. He initially studied theology. He was twenty-three before he was able to persuade his father to support him in studying art. He moved to Paris where first he studied under the Academic artist Charles Gleyre (also Swiss). Later he graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, then moved back in with his parents, establishing a studio in their attic. Anker's success as an artist apparently came rather quickly. Within four years he was married and starting a family of six children who often appeared in his paintings. Children knitting (left) or reading were always a favorite subject for Anker, perhaps because such activities required good eyesight (especially knitting) which the adults in the family may have lacked.

On the Stove, 1895, Albert Anker. Bedrooms get cold during Swiss winters.
Girl Holding Two Cats,
Albert Anker
It is, in fact, when painting children that Albert Anker most excels. Many are simple head and shoulders portraits, but it's when he moves them into his genre scenes that we can most appreciate their lives, their joys and sorrows in growing up during the late 19th century. On the Stove (above) was probably not typical, but nonetheless speaks volumes as to the childhood penchant for improvisation in keeping warm at night. His painting, Girl Holding Two Cats speaks as warmly of his love of animals (being the son of a veterinarian) as much as it does his love of children. Many, if not most, of Anker's paintings of children, if given modern-day dress, could pass quite easily for portraits of kids today. Children change. Children mature into adults; but childhood is a constant. Details, then and now, may differ, but the experience of "growing up"...not so much.

Child Funeral, 1863, Albert Anker. Death was an ever-present part of childhood.
Though there is an unavoidable nostalgic sweetness to even the most typical children's genre Anker produced, there is also an exploration of the stark reality that death was an ever-present part of childhood during the 19th century. Two of Anker's six children died before reaching adulthood. His Child's Funeral (above), painted in 1863, is a sobering expression of the fact that not all genre, not all the depictions of lovely, loving children, bore "happily ever after" endings. The funeral depicted was probably not that of one of Anker's children (the date is a little early for that) not to mention the fact such a painting, coming from a grieving father, would have been deemed unseemly, not to mention heartrending to produce. However, another Anker painting does, in fact, depict the artist's toddler son, Ruedi on his deathbed (below).

Ruedi Anker on his Deathbed, 1869, Albert Anker
The Drinker, 1868, Albert Anker
--no Norman Rockwell genre here.
With his family raised, Albert Anker (there's little mention of his wife, Anna) traveled broadly throughout Europe, spending winters in Paris. His subjects grew to include the elderly as well as more than thirty highly realistic still-lifes, quite often including food items. He died in 1910 at the age of seventy-nine. He is considered today the "National Painter" of Switzerland largely for his enduring glimpses of daily life during the Victorian era. Many Swiss postage stamps bear images of his work. His home and studio in Bern (bottom) where the artist was born and raised, and there raised his own family, is open to the public by appointment, including a personal tour by Matthias Brelin, the artist's grandson.

The Albert Anker House and Museum (built in 1803), Bern Switzerland,
just as the artist left it.


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