Paintings of 1920: Portraits

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Sleepless Night. Self-Portrait in Inner Turmoil (1920), oil on canvas, 150 × 129 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Nineteen-twenty was perhaps the first year after the Great War that life could start returning to whatever was going to be normal post-war and post-pandemic. With so many of the old and the young – particularly young men – dead, life in both country and city had changed irrevocably. We’ll never know just many died from the pandemic flu in 1918-19, but it must have been at least 17 million, a great many of whom lived in Europe and North America.

Art – painting in particular – was going through changes as great, as critics and purchasers hastily abandoned the established in hot pursuit of the new. Many of those who had built reputations and business over long careers quickly found themselves ignored has-beens, with little income and no future. Some took their own lives in despair.

In this series, I look at a small selection of the paintings thought to have been completed in 1920. You won’t find any by younger artists, not because I don’t like or appreciate them, but simply because almost all of them died less than seventy years ago, and are therefore still subject to copyright.

This opening article in the series looks at portraits, and should give a clear idea of the range of styles which were in use at the time.

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Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer (1873-1943), Portrait of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1920), oil on canvas, 122.2 x 93.7 cm, Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC. Wikimedia Commons.

Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872-1920), painted by Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, shows this leader of the women’s suffrage movement and one of Kentucky’s leading progressive reformers. She suffered from tuberculosis for much of her life, and died in 1920 at the age of only 48.

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Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942), Georges Clemenceau (1920), oil on canvas, 119.1 x 93.4 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. The Athenaeum.

Cecilia Beaux’s portrait of the French statesman Georges Clemenceau shows him in his later years – he is nearly eighty here. He had been Prime Minister of France during the First World War, and had only recently resigned from that post and from politics more generally, and was a good friend of Claude Monet.

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Paul César Helleu (1859–1927), Portrait of a Woman (c 1920), pastel and charcoal on canvas, 40.5 x 32 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In addition to Paul César Helleu’s portraits in oils, he made many quick sketches of women, including this Portrait of a Woman, in pastel and charcoal.

Realising that the good and rich years of the Belle Époque were over, after his final visit to the US in 1920, Helleu destroyed most of the copper plates for his prints, to prevent more prints being made from them, and went into retirement. He died in 1927.

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Anita Rée (1885–1933), Portrait of Albert Malte Wagner (c 1920), oil on cardboard, 100.5 x 69.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Anita Rée’s Portrait of Albert Malte Wagner shows this distinguished literary historian, who lived from 1886-1962, and had completed his doctorate at Hamburg University in the previous year. Rée enhances his distinction with statuary and books. Wagner fled from Germany in 1934, to live in the UK.

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Anna Althea Hills (1882-1930), Frances (1920), oil on board, 61 x 50.8 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

By the 1920s, Anna Althea Hills’ gorgeous plein air paintings, such as this contre-jour of Frances, were decidely Post-Impressionist.

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Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Self-Portrait with Beard (c 1920), oil on canvas, 28 x 44.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Pierre Bonnard didn’t paint many portraits of himself, and his Self-Portrait with Beard shows him in his mid-fifties, his suntanned face emerging from its camouflage against the background. He continued to pursue his art with a fierce independence, painting in his own way.

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Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Josse Bernheim-Jeune and Gaston Bernheim de Villiers (1920), oil on canvas, 165.5 x 155.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s double portrait of the two Bernheim brothers Josse Bernheim-Jeune and Gaston Bernheim de Villiers recognises the importance of their gallery to the artist. Their father, who died in 1915, had opened the gallery in Paris in 1863, and started to promote Impressionists in 1874. In 1901, it held the first important exhibition of paintings by Vincent van Gogh in Paris, and went on to present works by the Nabis, Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani, Utrillo, and others. It represented Bonnard between 1904-1940, and continues to specialise in his work.

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Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Portrait of Mademoiselle Renee Monchaty (1920), oil on canvas, 50 x 41 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

If the Bernheim brothers had helped win Bonnard fame and success as an artist, his Portrait of Mademoiselle Renée Monchaty shows a model and lover who came close to ending his long relationship with his partner Marthe. Bonnard met Monchaty in 1916, but their relationship came to an end when Marthe and Bonnard finally married in 1925. Within a month, Monchaty shot herself in the heart, surrounded by white roses in her bath.

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Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Sleepless Night. Self-Portrait in Inner Turmoil (1920), oil on canvas, 150 × 129 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

For eight months in 1908-09, Edvard Munch received psychiatric treatment in hospital. By 1920, he had made an excellent recovery, but wasn’t entirely free from anxiety and melancholy. In his Sleepless Night. Self-Portrait in Inner Turmoil he stands, gripping his jacket, presumably in a room at Ekely, his secluded estate near Oslo, Norway.

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Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Flowers and Daughter Wilhelmine (1920), oil on canvas, 111 × 150 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Lovis Corinth had suffered a major stroke in December 1911, but with the support of his wife and family he too recovered well. Here he combines his recent enthusiasm for painting floral arrangements with a gentle portrait of his eleven year-old daughter in Flowers and Daughter Wilhelmine. The flowers shown are dominated by amaryllis, arums, and lilacs, and its composition probably reflects Wilhelmine’s shyness at that age.

Next week I’ll look at narrative paintings from the same year.