It is always wonderful to be able to do original research on a mysterious painting by a mysterious artist. Born in Paris in 1867, Marthe Alers-Abran died tragically young in the same City, aged only 41, in 1908. She had married engineer Charles Alers in 1897, and taught drawing, like many female artists at the time.
However, unlike many woman artists in her time, she gained entry to the exclusive Salon des Artistes Franais, where she obtained an honourable mention in 1893 and a medal in 1896.
What intrigued me about the painting by her was that there was nothing Parisian, or even French about the scene it depicts. How did she come to paint it? I think I found the answer. Marthe was not only a painter, but also a sculptor and a very good one at that, too. I have not been able to establish to what extend she worked and studied with Rodin, but she certainly had a connection to him, her name appearing in his studio archives. And it was certainly in Rodins studio that she met, and became friends with, fellow sculptor Sophie Postolska, a French woman of Polish origin, who was exactly the same age as she. Like Camille Claudel before her, Marthes friend Sophie was not only Rodins student, but also his muse and lover.
When Rodin broke up with her in 1904, Sophie tried to kill herself with Mercury Chloride, and was admitted to the Hpital Broussais. Once released, she started travelling, spending time in Krakow, Vienna, and Zakopane, a town at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, with a thriving artistic community.
This is where Marthe came to visit, and where she painted this beautiful, jewel coloured scene depicting local women at the Angelus evening prayer in the fields. For me, this painting evokes memories of witnessing unfamiliar scenes in distant countries: that strange feeling of being present-yet-detached at the same time, of discovery. With her immense talent, I wonder how famous Marthe might have become if she had lived longer. In the year before her death, she exhibited paintings both at the Chateau de Rohan in Strasburg, and in an exhibition of French art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. She featured in Walter Shaw Sparrows book Women Painters of the World, an overview of prominent women painters from 1413 to 1905, the year of publication.
The purpose of the book was to prove wrong the statement that the achievements of women painters have been second-rate- which I suppose was an almost radical cause at the time!
Marthes work may well be gaining traction again. The Museum of Toulouse holds a work by Marthe, and her painting Tigers in the Jungle features in a more recent reference work on woman artists by Dr Sara Gray.
Measuring 58 x 71 cm, our large oil on canvas by Marthe Alers Abrams is signed at the lower left. The overall size in a hand carved wooden frame is 80 x 92 cm.
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