Herstory

Caroline von der Embde—Female Empowerment Through a Painted Selfie

Kero Fichter 13 May 2024 min Read

Women artists’ self-portraits have always struck audiences—no other motive proved as ideal for promoting their careers in a male-dominated business. Famous female artists such as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun or Angelica Kauffmann cleverly highlighted their professional identity through self-portraiture. Many of their sisters still waiting to be rediscovered followed this pattern. The German Romantic painter Caroline von der Embde created an incredible piece that radiates female autonomy and confidence.

An Obscure Woman Artist

Caroline von der Embde (1812-1867) lies at the bottom of the vast pool of forgotten women artists we are still in the process of draining. From the few sources we know of, her biography was typical for a professional female artist of her time. She was the daughter of August von der Embde (1780-1862), the leading portraitist in Kassel, capital of the Electorate of Hesse, Germany, in the first half of the 19th century.

As public art institutions granted women limited admission, they usually turned to private tutorship, often by male relatives. Apparently, Embde did not attend the class open to women at the Kassel Academy.

Caroline von der Embde: August von der Embde, Caroline von der Embde, 1818, New Gallery, Kassel, Germany.

August von der Embde, Caroline von der Embde, 1818, New Gallery, Kassel, Germany.

Caroline and her younger sister Emilie (1816-1904) were trained by their father, whose studio they later joined. Her career benefited from her family’s connections to the intellectual elite of Kassel, such as the legendary brothers Grimm. Local politician Friedrich Oetkers drew a portrait of a young Embde in his memoirs:

The richest aptitude was brought to society by the painter Caroline von der Embde and her talented sisters. Lina could do anything, she drew, painted, sang, performed living images, was our best actress, danced, and all of that without being beautiful [emphasis added], with always the same charme, amiability, good mood, and modesty.

Friedrich Oetkers

Zwischen Ideal und Wirklichkeit. Künstlerinnen zur Goethe-Zeit zwischen 1750 und 1850, ed. Bärbel Kovalevski (Ostfildern-Ruit 1999), p. 250.

Caroline von der Embde: Emilie von der Embde, Caroline von der Embde, Kassel City Museum, Germany.

Emilie von der Embde, Caroline von der Embde, Kassel City Museum, Germany.

Despite listing many artistic talents, Oetkers did not miss the opportunity to criticize Embde’s looks. Now, as in the past, women just couldn‘t get judged without addressing their appearance.

Embde specialized in portraits and romanticized genre scenes of young women and girls in regional costume. She also painted a few landscapes and a significant body of oil studies.

AdVertisment

Portraits such as the one of the daughters of the Hessian Elector demonstrate that the local high society appreciated her craftsmanship.

AdVertisment

Many of her father’s unsigned paintings from his late career are now believed to be hers or a collaboration respectively. Embde‘s omission from the canon in the context of collective work was no exclusive case. It happened to many women artists who were trained or worked with male colleagues.

In contrast to her sister Emilie, who preferred to stay and work in Kassel, she settled in Düsseldorf in 1850 after traveling extensively through Germany between 1838 and 1843. Düsseldorf was renowned for its art academy, and Embde participated in several exhibitions across the country, such as in Dresden, Munich, Cologne, and Wiesbaden. She married lawyer Alfred Klauhold at the age of 42 in 1854.

The decision to become a wife at a comparably old age could have been made because a younger Embde was too afraid to lose her career. Women artists who chose wedlock very often saw themselves forced to give up art for a household and children. For instance, Emilie von Embde remained unmarried, perhaps to avoid such a destiny. It is not clear how productive Embde was after her marriage, but she seemingly continued to work. The couple moved to Bremen and Hamburg, where Embde died in 1867.

The Self-Portrait

Caroline von der Embde: Caroline von der Embde, Self-Portrait, 1855, New Gallery, Kassel, Germany.

Caroline von der Embde, Self-Portrait, 1855, New Gallery, Kassel, Germany.

None of her works is as convincing as her self-portrait from 1855. The medium-sized oil painting shows the artist calmly on a stool with elaborate upholstery in front of her easel in an undefined room. Her gaze is fixed on us while she holds a chalk stick in her hand, apparently taking a break from drawing. The canvas in front of her features a sketch of a figure, Embde‘s signature with her nickname Linne, and the inscription “painted in Bremen, 31 of January 1855.” Embde wears short hair and a black jacket with a white lace collar over a purple skirt with a flower pattern. A red curtain frames the background to the left and a distinctive vase with different plants to the right.

By illustrating herself in the middle of her work and simultaneously looking at her audience, Embde unmistakably says, “Behold, I am an artist.” With this empowering depiction, she joins many women who staged their artistic occupation as the core of their identity in self-portraits.

Since their establishment in the European art market as autonomous professionals in the 16th century, women tended to portray themselves at work, often making eye contact with the viewer. This confident claim to their craft helped them stand their ground against male colleagues’ and clients’ prejudices. Paintings by contemporaries of Embde from three different countries prove this type was widely circulating in the first half of the 19th century:

AdVertisment

Marie Ellenrieder (Germany), Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot (France), and Mary Ellen Best (England) all proudly display brush and pencil as instruments of their proficiency. Despite their hard-earned success and recognition, women artists were inclined to maintain a clear sense of femininity in their self-portraits. From neat dresses and sparkling jewelry to blooming flowers and “feminine” poses, it seemed impossible for them to show themselves as working women in a besmirched coat and disheveled hair.

That didn’t happen until Polish painter Anna Bilińska broke the rules with her in-your-face self-portrait in 1887. The crude facts of a work coat or hands crusted with paint were too much to bear for a delicate audience soaked in make-believe.

Caroline‘s great selfie subscribes to the dual identity of a confident artist and a respectable society woman. On the other hand, Emilie seemed satisfied with the latter in her self-portrait.

Caroline von der Embde: Emilie von der Embde, Self-Portrait, 1852, Kassel City Museum, Germany.

Emilie von der Embde, Self-Portrait, 1852, Kassel City Museum, Germany.

Caroline von der Embde‘s serious expression emphasizes the conscientiousness of her work, while the flowers and tidy clothes retain the ideal of womanhood. The curtain in the background may allude to the tradition of aristocratic portraiture, in which draperies had been featured prominently since the late 16th century. It adds a sense of ennoblement to the overall self-possessed air. Some might see the feminist attitude in the self-portrait echoed in Embde‘s painting of a Reading Girl, as if the artist was commenting on the precarious circumstances of women‘s education.

Caroline von der Embde: Caroline von der Embde, Reading Girl, 1850/55, New Gallery, Kassel, Germany.

Caroline von der Embde, Reading Girl, 1850/55, New Gallery, Kassel, Germany.

However, her other depictions of rural women and girls conform to the cute girl from next door image. She might have chosen this sweetened cliché to attract clients in a growing climate of competition. We are left with uncertainty regarding Embde‘s opinion on women‘s rights and education. Yet we should ask if it is a coincidence that she painted her self-portrait as a testament to female artistry and independence precisely a year after her marriage, after what appears to have been a successful career.

Furthermore, she kept signing her works with her husband‘s and her birth name, a principle other married women artists such as Olga Wisinger-Florian practiced. And if we look even closer at her hands, no marriage ring is to be found. Now I dare ask: a coincidence?

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