On a beautiful late summer’s day in the Swedish countryside, a small crowd has gathered alongside a low stone wall by the roadside. A dozen children, boys and girls of all ages, have stopped to watch an elegant young woman sitting at her easel beneath an artist’s umbrella. She is working outdoors on a plein-air painting depicting the landscape in front of her: a harvested field in which regular rows of haystacks stretch to the edge of far-off groves of trees. Almost all eyes are on the picture being painted. Completely engrossed in this incongruous and altogether fascinating sight, the children show themselves to be “art friends”, Konstvänner, the title under which the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in May 1885, where it won first prize and the Royal Medal.
The success enjoyed by Konstvänner is hardly surprising. Brate had learned well from her master at the Academy, August Malmström (1829-1901), famous for his paintings of rural children in untroubled, anecdotal genre scenes. Konstvänner testifies to the young artist’s skill (she was 24 years old at the time), her ability to capture attitudes, and, above all, her mastery of composition: the numerous diagonal lines (the road, the haystacks, the mound of stones, the peasant girls and the boys lying on the grass) all converging radially on the painter at her easel. Bathed in intense, regular light, the scene has undeniable charm. Brate has portrayed it very skillfully, in particular in the meticulous treatment of the greenery in the foreground and of the variously shaped and colored stones. The artist depicted at work, the young woman whose presence is signaled by her umbrella, provides the scene with additional interest. The painting documents the practice of plein-air painting in Sweden in the mid-1880s. Sometimes described as a self-portrait, this distant female figure more probably represents one of Fanny Brate’s fellow painters, students like her at the Academy’s Ladies Department.
Fanny Brate enrolled in the “Ladies Department” or Fruntimmersavfdelningen at Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which, in 1864, had become the first art school to provide women artists with access to a complete course) in August 1879, after taking drawing lessons at a technical school like many of her fellow students. Following her award for Konstvänner in 1885, she obtained a travel grant that enabled her to spend the first months of 1887 in Paris, where she continued her studies at the Académie Colarossi. She went on to exhibit her work – whose subjects rapidly moved on to encompass portraits, still lifes, landscapes and interior scenes – in Stockholm, and, in the years that followed, in Munich and Berlin, and at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair in Missouri, where she was awarded a Bronze Medal. Despite her brilliant career, none of Fanny Brate’s works have previously featured in French museums, where women artists – like images of women artists – are still inadequately represented. Konstvänner now figures in Musée d’Orsay’s collection of Swedish works, which comprises some twenty paintings including Hugo Salmson’s The Dalby Gate (1884).
This work by Fanny Brate is currently exhibited on the median level, in Room 58.