Thursday, September 1, 2011

A female etcher of the Second Empire: Frederique Emilie O'Connell

A good artistic quiz question would be: What nationality was Frédérique Émilie O'Connell? The answer is neither French nor Irish, but German. The painter and etcher Frédérique Émilie Auguste O'Connell, née Miethe, was born in Potsdam in 1823 and died in Paris in 1885. An early devotion to drawing marked her out for an artistic career, and at the age of 18 she went to Berlin to study under Charles Joseph Bégas. She then continued her studies in Brussels, where she married in 1844. In 1853 she settled in Paris, establishing an atelier in Montmartre. Frédérique Émilie O'Connell threw herself with fervour into the artistic and social life of Paris, and her salon was frequented by writers as well as artists, notably Alexandre Dumas fils and Théophile Gautier. She also took many female students, and the prospectus of her course of studies is given in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 15 Novembre 1859.

Frédérique Émilie O'Connell: Prospectus of studies

She exhibited at the Paris Salon from 1846 to 1868. The collapse of the Second Empire in 1870 was also the end of Frédérique Émilie O'Connell's artistic career, as the demand for society portraits dwindled. Abandoned by both her husband and her society friends, Frédérique Émilie O'Connell lost her grip on reality, and spent her final years in a mental hospital, forgotten and alone. This sad end eclipsed what had been a glittering career for this pioneering woman artist. Frédérique Émilie O'Connell is now remembered less for her portraits and history paintings than for her skill as an etcher. Although she made only 10 etchings in all, they are a remarkable body of work. She made her first etchings in Brussels in 1849; the last, a self-portrait, was published by L'Artiste in 1879, though probably executed well before that (the other 9 were already catalogued by Philippe Burty in 1860). Burty's favourite among O'Connell's etchings was the Tête de sainte Madeleine published by the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1860. He writes of this work (which is also known simply as Tête de femme), that it is "the most beautiful work ever etched by Mme O'Connell. The swagger of the effect, and the sureness of the line make this sketch a masterful etching worthy of the greatest Flemish masters."

Frédérique Émilie O'Connell, Tête de sainte Madeleine
Etching, c.1849

One thing that is hard to convey in this format is how tiny this etching is - just 80 mm high and 50 mm wide (roughly 3" by 2"). The rest of her etchings are more generous in size, but the small proportions of the Tête de Sainte Madeleine emphasise both the delicacy and panache of her etched line. As with many etchers of the time, Frédérique Émilie O'Connell looked to Rembrandt as the greatest exponent of the art of etching, and her work mimics both his freedom and his precision. Although she was a member of the Société des Aquafortistes in 1862 and 1865, Frédérique Émilie O'Connell only published one etching with Cadart, a portrait of her husband dressed as a knight of the time of Louis XIII.


Jane Librizzi said...

Another female artist rediscovered. Why do you suppose an etcher would choose to work in such a small compass? Is it the challenge or something more technical?

Neil said...

I'm not sure about the size question, Jane. Of course for a novice etcher (this was only her second etching), a small plate may seem less challenging - it's certainly cheaper. But the detail on this is incredible (if you click on the image it will expand to a much larger version). One odd thing I noticed today is that the bottom corners of the plate had been cut off at 45 degrees at some point, and then seemingly two rounded corners have been added to accord with the top - I don't imagine we'll ever know what was going on there! I looked at it very closely because I noticed that Sanchez & Seydoux, who catalogued all the prints of the Gazette des Beaux Arts. describe the copy they saw as printed chine appliqué (on china paper laid down on a backing sheet), but my copy is definitely printed directly onto a wove paper support. In terms of rediscovering another female artist, I'm particularly interested because O'Connell herself was so involved with teaching female artists, at a time when it was quite difficult for women to get any formal art instruction.

galeriajan said...

dear Nail
I thank you so much for your professional explanation about artist and technique that she used. I have this etching in my private collection. Corneli Dusard and Ms. O'Connell are only 2 etchings in my collection that are incredible.
Thank you again for your time professionalism.

Neil said...

Hi Galeriajan - Your collection sounds interesting - I've never seen an etching by Dusard, but I suppose he's a bit outside my main period of interest.