Why did we forget Suze Robertson, the "female Van Gogh"?

Suze Robertson She was often described as the female Breitner or Van Gogh, but painter Suze Robertson had her own visual language. In her time she was appreciated and seen as a "predecessor of the moderns," after her death she was soon forgotten. Why, really?


In the late 19th century, women were not supposed to do live nude portraits. In 1878, a 23-year-old artist decided to change that on her own. In fact, Suze Robertson (1855-1922) found it intolerable that she was not allowed to attend "nude classes" while her male colleagues could. Painting after living nudes was, in her opinion, necessary to master the art of portraiture. She therefore came up with a plan: officially members of the Rotterdam Academy could not be denied access to evening classes, and so she became a member. Promptly after enrolling, she sat behind an easel during the nude classes.

Her fellow students spoke outrage. They placed an open letter in De Maasbode of December 1, 1878. "Modern Civilization" was the title of their letter, in which they stated, among other things, that it was "inappropriate for young ladies, seated among pupils and members, to take part in such lessons in public." What were the parents supposed to think of this Robertson, who, by the way, was teaching drawing at a Senior Citizens' School for girls? But rules were rules; members had the right to attend classes, according to the headmistress of the HBS and the board of the academy. Robertson was able to stay, and thanks to her, women have since been able to take nude classes and no longer had to confine themselves to still lifes, as was common at the time.

It is a typical anecdote about one of the first female professional artists, which can be read in Suze Robertson. Dedicated, opinionated, modern. She died a hundred years ago, and although she was appreciated during her lifetime, relatively little was known about her. Reason for a book on this almost forgotten artist and a retrospective exhibition of her work at The Hague's Panorama Mesdag.

Hague School

During her lifetime, Robertson - born in 1855 as the youngest child of a lumberjack, her mother dying when she was two - was seen as an adept of the Hague School, the movement dominant when she began as an artist. The ordinary life and landscapes in brownish tones that typified the Hague School are also found by critics in her work. Some see in her a female Breitner. Others, when she captures peasant life in Brabant in 1885, consider her a female Vincent van Gogh. But no one really came out of it.

Throughout her working life, people kept looking for an appropriate label for Robertson. One thing was clear: She was not a painter as women were supposed to be. Her brushstroke was too coarse, the faces in her work too unfriendly and her themes deviated too much from what her contemporaries captured: cats, still lifes or young girls. True, Robertson also painted many women, but that was because it was easier for a woman at that time to have women than men as models in your studio. Her women, however, were women in action. Because of her use of color, she also didn't really fit in with the Hague School. And the Tachtigers, the romantic movement that wanted to show the "most individual expression of the most individual emotion" in shades of brown, also fell out.

The colors Robertson used stemmed from vision rather than realism, a critic noted in 1900, and they were also often too high in contrast to belong to either movement. The cityscapes she produced at the turn of the century were also notable in that Robertson thought from planes rather than in the recognizable depiction of a street, house or environment. 

Her work The Alley, based on a photograph she had taken in Leidschendam, received rave reviews, but, as was often the case with her work at the time, it was also criticized: "It is a pity that there is still so much discomfort in her art, due to her preference for black tints and shadows. It is sometimes as if she painted with soot," judged Het Vaderland in 1890.

It would be a judgment that stuck with her for a long time, despite her success. She was too obscure, not feminine enough. As recently as 1911, a reviewer of the Algemeen Dagblad: "There are undoubtedly good and great qualities in this work, but in order to find something feminine in these chunky painted, cumbersome painted, grubby smoked pieces, one has to think very much of Das dritte Geschlecht. Or at least of those women in hobbled pockets from the time when feminists still thought that, in order to win the right to vote, they had to look as unattractive as possible. Surely one should not make a travesti of them now."


It was one of the last times a reviewer was so annoyed by her work. Suze Robertson was now widely appreciated nationally, and in the last fifteen years of her life she also broke through internationally. After 1905 more than a hundred of her works were shown at various exhibitions, and in 1921 - a year before her death - more than 250 of her works were even exhibited. But she made little new work in those last years: she suffered from depression, imagination dried up and osteoarthritis prevented her from drawing. When she was buried, many people attended - convinced that a greatness had passed away. Painters from the generation after her, such as Charley Toorop and Mondrian, also appreciated her work. Three years after her death, poet and art critic Albert Plasschaert even stated, "If we want to find transitions and predecessors of the moderns, there are two painters in Holland who are possible for that; of course Vincent van Gogh, but still Suze Robertson."

So much appreciation already during her lifetime and a clear placement of her significance: it raises the question of why this painter says very little to most people today. Looking at her work now, it is striking how unglamorous her subjects were: she did not romanticize ordinary life, but shows hard-working women at a spinning wheel, carrying branches or peeling potatoes. Superb is the portrait of a woman reading - the nanny Pietje - which has almost a Madonna-like appearance due to the gold leaf in the background. As do later works, such as the Vispoort of Harderwijk, the white house in Noordwijk and especially a woman bleaching sheets on the grass.

The most common argument that she was forgotten is because she was a woman. Everything would have turned out differently if she had been a man. That seems logical, but during her life she managed to turn that argument around many times. Not only did she deftly gain access to nude classes, but she also made sure that the reading room at the Hague art society Pulchri became accessible to women. She retained her own name on paintings after her marriage, received substantial subsidies for four consecutive years beginning in 1885 that allowed her to travel the country for inspiration, was the breadwinner for the family, and in order to devote herself entirely to artistry, she had her only daughter placed with a foster family so that she would have less need to devote herself to subjects in and around the home. Her colleague, the art historian Grada Hermina Marius, observed, "Robertson is unquestionably the greatest artist, the only woman perhaps of our time, where femininity shows itself in her art not as weakness, but as strength."

Disappeared myth

There is much to be said for that reasoning, and it fits the zeitgeist in which many women are being "rediscovered. But it is not impossible that the reason for oblivion must also be sought in Robertson herself. She was adamant (about her critics: "It is better to be fought than to be ignored"), convinced of her own abilities and she did not want to be disturbed. In short, she lacked self-presentation. She preferred to work alone and rock hard, forgetting the importance attached to the person behind the artist. Personal documents were also long untraceable, so the myth surrounding her figure disappeared.

Of course: fortunately we still have the works, as it is called. But, now perhaps more than a hundred years ago, something is also needed to keep those works alive. Van Gogh's relatives have understood this: we now even marvel at a French tree root that may be found on one of his works, and every snippet of letter is interpreted ten times over.

Robertson has always had to do without that kind of advocacy, and thought her works should speak for themselves, when more myth-making would have been effortless. She grew up in a foster home, had a bad marriage, had to contend with sexism, was depressed and worked with crooked fingers: all fodder for psychologists.

That the painter Robertson has been forgotten by many is perhaps mainly because the man Robertson forgot to give form to his own drama, which is precisely what is so useful in keeping the work alive after one's death. 

The exhibition Suze Robertson. Dedicated, idiosyncratic, modern is on display through 5/3 at Panorama Mesdag. 

from the collection of Art Dumay, presented by Venduehuis The Hague for sale November 16, 2022




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