Swedish Art #1

After the End of a Modeling Session, an 1884 painting by Swedish painter Richard Bergh, reveals a lot about the lives of artists during the Impressionist era. Bergh came to Paris in 1881 for three reasons: 1) his artist-father, Edvard, had spent time there as part of his own training, 2) his art school pals had already established themselves there, and 3) because Paris was the avant garde center of artistic activity, just as Rome had been in the first decades of the sixteenth century when Raphael and Michaelangelo were working there or New York was in the 1950s and ‘60s when Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were born. It is a hybrid painting that evidences earlier movements—Naturalism (in the way it’s painted), Realism (by focusing on socio-economic and gender relations), and Impressionism (in taking as its subject the artist-author’s life)—and acknowledges interests of the Symbolist Movement (in its incorporation of music and silent reflection), then gaining adherents in all the arts.

Bergh chose a title that worked together with the image to help viewers understand what he wanted to communicate. It’s the end of a workday, and the hired worker is preparing to return home, while her employer continues to work—not with brush in hand but rather violin and bow, engaged in a silent integration and assessment process. Was the day’s progress satisfactory? What are the possible next steps? The model pauses to regard him as she prepares to put on her stocking. The young woman has been modeling nude; her loose undergarment slips from her shoulder and her corset awaits in the foreground, beside solvent and a paintbrush.

In keeping with the era’s gender norms, the male artist (Bergh) was (painting) and is (playing the violin) active, while the woman (anonymous) was (modeling) and is (listening, watching) passive. The artist has engaged in satisfying, self-chosen, creative activities, while the working class woman is likely uneducated, since otherwise one imagines she’d seek, at the very least, a position as a sales girl in one of Paris’s new department stores, Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, or at one of the burgeoning number of exclusive boutiques populating that increasingly bourgeois neighborhood. Bergh belonged to that bourgeoisie, in his native Stockholm during a century when more than 40% of Europe’s population spent some period of time working as servants.

The popularity of the artist’s studio as a subject for painting during the nineteenth century reflected the seismic transformation in the lives of artists that occurred during that era. Many artists lost interest in the rigid curricula of state-sponsored art academies and instead studied privately with artists they admired. In search of clients, city-dwelling artists opened their studios on a regular basis to the public/potential clients. In Paris, with its dense concentration of artists, studios—shared or individual—became centers of social activity. And even before Baudelaire’s exhortation for artists to be “painters of modern life,” historians of their era, particularly their personal corner of it, painters began documenting the informal work and social life unfolding in artists’ studios.

Despite the concretely descriptive title, Bergh seems more concerned with what occurs in the interstices between objects and subjects: looking, listening, thinking. Symbolists artists and writers sought to “express the inexpressible,” to depict or evoke dreams, feelings, thoughts. For them, music was the perfect creative art because it engaged the mind of the listener and was subjective in both its execution and reception as well as fleeting, just like life itself. One wonders what piece of music the artist plays and whether something particular about it enchants the attentive model. We viewers must imagine all that. Bergh purposefully involves the viewer by creating prompts for reflection. Which narrative choices reflect the lived situation? We’ll never know. The urge to create works that demanded viewer participation, that narrowed the chasm between art and life, escalated during the twentieth century and led to the evolution of performance art.

The painting’s rigidly symmetrical composition mitigates the setting’s informality. The vertical easel mast, dark like the woman’s hair and flanked by the equidistant stretcher edges reinforces a sense or order. All activity occurs on the left side, only inanimate objects: a stool, a second palette, a table surface clear except for the brushes, bottle of solvent, and barely visible footprints of the model.

I love this painting (located in the art museum of Sweden’s southernmost city, Malmö) because it appears straightforward, modest, tranquil. But if one penetrates the surface simplicity, a viewer-engaging complexity materializes. Upon closer examination, After the End of a Modeling Session is filled with ambiguity, sound, and thought.

For more on this painting and late-19th century Swedish art in general, check out my Nationalism and the Nordic Imagination. Swedish Painting of the 1890s.

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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