The German-Swiss artist Ottilie Wilhelmine Roederstein counts among the best known portrait painters of her age. Not only did she enjoy considerable renown in her native Switzerland, but she also exhibited to great acclaim in Paris, London, Frankfurt, and Chicago. The greatest triumph of her career came in 1889, when Roederstein was awarded the silver medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. After training as an artist in Zurich, Berlin, Paris, and Frankfurt, the ambitious Roederstein decided to settle in Hofheim am Taunus, where she remained from 1909 until her death.1 Her model for this portrait, Ergebung (Surrender), was her neighbour, Juliane Hoppe, née Willmann. The painting belongs to a whole cycle of works in which the artist sought to address the horrors of the First World War. Roederstein herself described the post-war years as a “time when, consumed and deeply troubled by the war’s tragic consequences, I kept trying, every day anew, to get to grips with life and with the world.”2 Her portrait of an old woman is thus not a likeness of any one individual, but should rather be understood as symbolic of a universally felt mental anguish. The woman’s posture conveys feelings of grief, loneliness, and despair. Her gnarled hands and hunched back attest to a life of hard physical labour. Her striking face is riven with deep furrows and her lips are thin and pale. Her wistful gaze seems as if turned inwards. Her arms folded in front of her bespeak resignation and absorption in her own gloomy thoughts. By reducing the background to just four, more or less equally sized areas of grey and blue, Roederstein succeeds in throwing her detailed rendition of this despondent face even more sharply into relief, thus making it our main focus of attention. The bold outlines, like the palette of dark, cool greys and blues and dull yellow ochre, serve to amplify the oppressive mood of the piece in much the same way. Roederstein painted several other portraits in addition to Ergebung (Surrender) during the Weimar Republic. To judge by the similarly emotive titles she gave them – Klage (Complaint), Kummer (Worry) and Verlassen (Deserted) – they are all part of a single series that turns on the sufferings caused by the First World War.3
On the verso is another portrait in oil on canvas, which according to Barbara Rök, author of the catalogue of works, was also painted in 1918. It shows an elderly peasant woman wearing a white kerchief and buttoned-up grey dress against a green background. The sitter was a local woman for this work, too.4 Although strictly speaking a bust portrait, the hand lying uppermost on the subject’s folded arms can still be glimpsed. The woman’s head is tilted slightly to the right and her gaze seems averted from the viewer, as if she were focusing on someone sitting diagonally opposite her. Her drooping right eyelid lends the right half of her face a sceptical and rather grim expression, whereas the left half looks alert and open.
The Städel Museum in collaboration with Kunsthaus Zürich is staging a special exhibition of this remarkable artist. Besides turning the spotlight on Roederstein’s development as an artist, it will also present a wealth of hitherto unpublished photographs and materials from the archives.
frei. schaffend. Die Malerin Ottilie W. Roederstein, exh. cat. Städel Museum Frankfurt am Main 2021, Berlin 2021, p. 12, 28.↩
Rök, Barbara, Ottilie W. Roederstein (1859–1937). Eine Künstlerin zwischen Tradition und Moderne, Monographie und Werkverzeichnis, Marburg 1999, p. 145.↩
Ibid., pp. 145ff.↩
Rök, Barbara, Ottilie W. Roederstein. Werkverzeichnis, Marburg 1999, p. 203 no. 1130.↩