Thursday, June 6, 2013

Child Prodigy

Anna Waser "Self Portrait, age twelve" 1691 Kunsthaus Zürich 

Anna Waser (1678 or 1679-1714) was a Swiss artist who had some very good luck and some very bad luck in her short life. Her story starts out well...she was lucky to be born into a wealthy and cultured family in Zurich. Her father Johann Rudolf Waser, who was a magistrate, was highly educated and unusually unprejudiced. Interested in art himself, when he noticed his fifth child Anna showed signs of precocious art talent he took her to study with Joseph Werner in the city of Bern. Werner was one of the leading Swiss artists of the day. Waser studied with Werner for a little more than four years, from about age 11 through sixteen, boarding with the artist's family. She was his only female student among many young men.  This piece was painted while she was studying with Werner, and we see her teacher's portrait on her easel. Her precocity was obviously a source of great pride to Werner, and he encouraged her to prominently display her age in the work.

At about age sixteen she returned to her family in Zurich where she found herself to be something of a local celebrity. She began accepting commissions from the notable and fashionable people of that city. Her portraits, landscapes and miniatures proved very popular and her fame began to spread farther.  When she was about age twenty-one an art loving nobleman, Count Wilhelm Moritz von Solms-Braunfels, invited her to become the court painter at his historic Castle Braunfels. Off she went on this exciting new start of what looked like a brilliant career. But it was not to be.

She had not been long with this court, and they were in the midst of planning a protracted visit to Paris, when her mother back in Zurich fell gravely ill. For a variety of reasons Anna was deemed the only of the Waser siblings capable of dealing with this domestic crisis, and she was forced to return to her family home. From 1702 onwards she was completely beset with familial duties, running the Zurich home and caring for both of her parents, each of whom now needed tending. Her painting was sidelined dramatically although she continued to execute a small piece here and there. She frequently branched out into silverpoint drawing, a technique that is of course less time-consuming than painting in oils, and handier for someone with not a lot of free time at their disposal.

At some point the ailing Waser parents passed on, but Anna Waser didn't have much time to enjoy a lessening of her domestic responsibilities. We read in a chronicle of that time that "Mit 30 Jahren verlor sie ihre Leibs- und Gemütskräfte." ("at age thirty she lost her abdominal and mental powers.")  She was then living with her two sisters Anna Maria and Elisabetha, callligraphers and graphic artists, who cared for her until her death at age thirty-five from complications following a fall.

 Other than the young self-portrait painting shown above, Waser's most notable authenticated work is said to be a silverpoint drawing reported to be in the Altes Museum in Berlin. (I was unable to verify this.) Waser started her career young, but she was summarily interrupted before she'd really begun. A catastrophic illness and early demise prevented her from ever fully picking up the threads again. Nonetheless, her family greatly esteemed and respected their once-famous sister and kept her story fresh in the family lore. A century after her death, a talented young writer named Maria Krebs married into the Waser family and was so intrigued by the tales of her husband's ancestor that she researched and wrote "The Story of Anna Waser" (by Maria Waser, first published in 1913, Stuttgart.)

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