Women Painting Themselves pt 6

Anna Dorothea Therbusch 1721-1782

Self-portrait, 1761 from Wikimedia Commons

I’m not going to lie, so far Anna Dorothea’s portraits are my favorite. I mean just LOOK at that FACE. I’m pretty sure I give people a very similar look on a daily basis. All relating to long dead artists aside, on a technical note Anna Dorothea’s trade is noted by brushes and pallet she’s holding, but that’s kind of off in the corner. The real focus of the painting is entirely on her face and lacy collar thing, which given that portraiture of the rich and fancily dressed seems to be the way artists made money back then, makes sense.

Anna Dorothea had a pretty interesting life. She studied art when she was young, then got married and devoted her time to helping her husband run a restaurant and raising three children. After they were grown, so when Anna Dorothea was around 40, she left her family (with their blessing as far as I can tell) to go be an artist in Paris. She somehow became associated with this art critic Denis Diderot and then, well, things got complicated. Here’s my best attempt at summarizing the situation:

THERBRUSCH: La, I am a woman but recently arrived in Paris, determined to become a painter at the tender age of forty!

DIDEROT: Hey there, I am a renowned art critic! I will help you out for reasons that are mysterious!

THERBRUSCH: Cool. Wanna get me into the Salon?

DIDEROT: Well..I mean, your painting is all right, but let me tell you all about how you should be doing it…

THERBRUSH: That’s nice. How many paintings have you made again, exactly?

DIDEROT: …Anyways, I wrote some letters to some very important friends of mine telling them how cheaply—er, I mean, what a good value for their money your portrait painting would be.


DIDEROT: You know what the perfect subject? Me! With my face to paint your skills will grow exponentially!

THERBRUSCH: Will they now.

DIDEROT: Do not question I know best for everything. Now then, time to get naked!

THERBRUSCH: Uh, this is only supposed to be from the chest up, not sure why you need to take your pants off…but ok, whatever, I’m a professional and can roll with this.

DIDEROT: [sees finished painting] The chest…it is so life-like, so beautiful…

THERBRUSCH: Um, this is a little weird.

PARISIANS: Hey Diderot, why’re you hanging out with that Therbrusch chick and trying to get her a job and stuff? You guys are totally doing it, right?

DIDEROT: WHAT? NO! She’s old! And ugly! And keeps wearing that ridiculous monocle!

PARISANS: But like, weren’t you naked in her studio? Protesting a bit much, aren’t you?

DIDEROT: Nononono that was totally innocent! We had a nice conversation! I couldn’t possibly be attracted to her—IT WAS ALL ABOUT THE ART.

PARISIANS: Yeah whatever, they were totally doing it.

Annnnd this situation where everyone assumes there must be a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, otherwise why would they even be talking is in no way relevant to today’s world, right? There was even a play about the debacle casting Anna Dorothea solidly as the villainous seductress. After all that she never did become particularly successful in Paris, so she eventually returned to Berlin where she did much better for herself and enjoyed some popularity with the Prussian and Russian elite for the remainder of her career.

Anna Dorothea ruffled feathers. She seems to somehow have gotten training in anatomy–the kind where you look at an actual human without clothing to get in the way–which freaked people out. And then there was the whole incident with Diderot. And then there’s her most well known painting (see below), a self portrait painted in her later years that shows her as she was: a resolutely un-stylish, unapologetically older woman staring the viewer down through her monocle.

Look, I can critique some of her technical skills—areas of shaky anatomy that aren’t excused by the style (hey, hands are hard), areas where it’s difficult to tell what’s going on with the outfit* (although to be fair, part of the problem might be bad photos), but art doesn’t have to be perfect to have worth and resonance, and out of all the artists profiled so far I find Anna Dorothea to be one of the most fascinating.

Self-portrait, 1777 from Wikimedia Commons

*Hat tip to Seelix for helping me figure out what’s going on with her headdress thingy here. It’s probably a muffin cap with a veil and strap-on monocle on top–not crazy hair as I first thought. I wish I was more of a fashion scholar, as there’s probably a lot of interesting data that could be gotten by studying what all of these women were wearing in their portraits, but honestly I’m lucky if I know the proper name to call something.


Note down at the bottom it mentions that the article was translated from its German equivilent. I rather got the impression that Anna Dorothea is better known in Germany/Eastern Europe, which is a bit of a problem for me when doing research as I only speak English. But if you’re more lingually gifted than I am, you might have better luck.
Portraiture: Facing the Subject
More on Therbrusch and Diderot
The website isn’t in English, but it’s the best gallery of her work I’ve been able to find.
This is a pay site, but you can sign up for a free trial. Lots of quotes from Diderot’s writing, in which you can discover he was also upset about lascivious ladies in carriages going down to the river to check out the dudes bathing. I’m not sure if this was actually a problem, or just something he thought might happen, the guy’s writing is a touch on the melodramatic side.

Previous parts in this series:
part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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