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The Art of Portraying Sisters

Jan Veth, Portrait of Cornelia, Clara and Johanna Veth, 1885, Rijksmuseum

Women Artists

The Art of Portraying Sisters

March is Women’s History Month, a great time to celebrate sisterhood in all its meanings. It’s not surprising that many artists having sisters, painted their portraits, especially early in the career. They were probably easily available for modelling and they often supported the artists’ effort and careers. Each of the five portraits below depicts sisters in it’s unique way – from a honest painting in a home setting to splendid allegorical representation created for a wealthy client. Enjoy and share with your sister!

1. Jan Veth – Portrait of Cornelia, Clara and Johanna Veth

Jan Veth, Portrait of Cornelia, Clara and Johanna Veth, 1885, Rijksmuseum

Jan Veth (1864 – 1925) was a Dutch painter, poet, art critic and university lecturer, especially recognized for his portraits. He painted portraits of his contemporaries: artists, philosophers, scientists. But at a young age of 21, when he still lived at home with his family, Veth painted this very honest portrait of Cornelia, Clara and Johanna – his three sisters. His father assessed the likenesses of his daughters with equal candour: “My opinion of these portraits is, and will always be, that they are excellent likenesses, which are anything but flattering, and there are a few sharp edges, which I would rather have seen some-what softened.”

2. Helene Schjerfbeck – A Boy Feeding his Little Sister

Helene Schjerfbeck, A Boy Feeding his Little Sister, 1881, Finnish National Gallery

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) remains a hidden gem of Finnish art. Her style changed dramatically throughout her life. That’s why among her artworks, we find realist, symbolist and expressionist pieces. This painting depicts an everyday situation: a boy feeding his little sister. Schjerfbeck created in in 1881 in Brittany, France. Schjerfbeck was enchanted by the models, she saw “something beautiful, fresh and genuine” in these Breton children. Even though critics found something appealing in the picture, this work aroused disapproval in the Finnish press: what gave offence was that the painting was large (115 x 94.5 cm) while its subject was trivial.

3. Bertha Wegmann – Madam Anna Seekamp, the Artist’s Sister

Bertha Wegmann, Madam Anna Seekamp, the Artist’s Sister, 1882, Statens Museum for Kunst

Bertha Wegmann (1847 – 1926) was one of the first professional female Danish painters, successful in her time and very wanted as a portrait artist. Wegmann was very successful and recognized as one of the best portrait painters of her times. She also became the first woman to hold a chair at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This portrait of her sister was awarded the Thorvaldsen Medal, the highest distinction within the visual arts in Denmark.

4. Albert Edelfelt – The Artist’s Sister Berta in a Rowing Boat, study

Albert Edelfelt, The Artist’s Sister Berta in a Rowing Boat, study, 1879, Finnish National Gallery

Albert Edelfelt (1854 – 1905)  was one of the founders of the Realist art movement in Finland and one of the first Finnish artists to achieve international recognition. Edelfelt created a few paintings of women and girls in a rowing boat. This one depicts his 15 years younger sister Berta who later became a teacher and a writer and published five collections of Albert Edelfelt’s letters. At the time of the creation of the painting, she’s a little girl of ten, which is emphasized by the size of the boat and the oar.

5.  Ferdinand Bol – Margarita Trip as Minerva, Instructing her Sister Anna Maria Trip

Ferdinand Bol, Margarita Trip as Minerva, Instructing her Sister Anna Maria Trip, 1663, Rijksmuseum

The Trip family was one of the richest Dutch families in the 17th century. In 1662 they moved to so-called Trippenhuis, the stateliest private residence in all of Amsterdam.  This portrait of two of the Trip daughters was hanging above a mantelpiece in one of the private rooms. This painting represents the allegory of education. The older sister, Margarita, wearing a helmet and a breastplate, represents Minerva (goddess of art and science), and the eager student kneeling by her side is her eleven-year-old sister Anna Maria.

This article is featured as a part of our celebration of the Women’s History Month, together with Europeana, Europe’s platform for cultural heritage. To learn more about remarkable European women in the arts, sciences, and society, visit the online exhibition Pioneers.

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