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Hanna Pauli, Swedish Gem

Hanna Pauli - Breakfast-Time - Google Art Project
Breakfast-Time, 1887

Born in Stockholm on January 13 , 1864 Hanna Hirsch-Pauli was a Swedish juste milieu portrait painter. Hanna studied in Paris where she met many other female Nordic artists like herself, including Finnish sculptor Venny Soldan whom she later painted. Pauli's work is characterized by an earthiness, natural and authentic...her portraiture has a profound honesty and individuality that is rare. Comfortable both indoors and out, she painted everything with an ease and grace that is definitely worth observing here.

In Breakfast-Time above, Pauli turns an ordinary table cloth into a thing of magic. Look closely at it. Pauli scumbles cool, violet hues into the shadows with unusual patches of orange and green-blues with thick, bright highlights to indicate reflected dappled sunlight. That bright mass of sunlit highlight appears contrary to our instincts as painters, yet here it is not only courageous but brilliant. The paint is so thick it was probably applied with a palette knife, dragging the paint like a dry brushstroke so the cool shadow underneath remains. Pauli may have even used her fingers in certain areas to smear the paint more thinly and create better transitions to the shadows. Yellow is occasionally interspersed in certain areas for a kind of sunlight "sparkle". The key was making the shadows the correct temperature of blue while adding whites, greys and greens to enhance the illusion. Even the ground the woman walks on is a panoply of warm greys with splotches of browns and violet hues. Note how it transitions to the similar thick white towards the edge of the road. The leaves of the tree provide a calming composition by atmospheric perspective, painting lighter greens in the background and darker, warmer greens above the woman. Even the brushwork in the chair and bench reveal an astute attention to using color and tone that is pure Impressionism in the everyday. This is a painter's painting.

Hanna Pauli - Friends - Google Art Project
Friends, ca.1907

Here Pauli takes candle-lit tenebrism with the simplicity of Swedish sensibility, and although not immediately striking at first, upon closer inspection the figures are more natural than "staged" like so many other paintings in this genre. Note the range of tones used here. Some of the faces in shadow resemble a "mud" tone yet work brilliantly. The lampshade itself is a shell of orange and yellow with scumbled thick highlights. Yet it is the character in these faces that is inspiring...Hanna's husband stands by the window with a glass of wine in his hands. The old woman reading is feminist writer Ellen Key, and Hanna herself appears to be seated on the floor listening intently. This is a study of not only light, shadow, texture and composition, but of a gathering of friends in a simpler world. Something we don't often see even in today's contemporary realism.

Skogspromenad, 1887

This breathtaking view of what is most likely Grössjöns nature reserve in Sweden, painted loving attention to detail, was clearly one of Pauli's favourite places to go for a walk. The way she places the two figures off to the right, in the distance, also reveals the importance of nature over humanity. Pauli contrasts the detailed leaves of the trees above with softer brushwork of the grass below. I love the way the tree trunks get thinner as they fade into the distance. This is a painting to witness up close, in person, to fully experience.

A Bavarian Peasant Girl (Hanna Pauli) - Nationalmuseum - 20186
A Bavarian Peasant Girl, ca. 1887

Pauli's portraiture has stark authenticity and drama despite its simplicity. Pauli captures the proud, Catholic, conservative nature of Bavaria with nothing more than a traditional costume and a timid, hardworking young woman. The averted gaze says so much here, not just about the awkwardness of being a subject of a painting but the independent nature of the region in Germany that continues to this day. Even Pauli's brushstrokes on her face seem to mimic the fabric of the young woman's garments. While much has changed since then, the spirit of being unique and proud here is a profound insight into a person and a people at the same time.

Venny Soldan-Brofeldt painting by Hanna Pauli
Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, Artist, 1887

Venny Soldan-Brofeldt was a Finnish artist and friend of Pauli, both of whom studied art together in Paris. The spontaneous freshness of this portrait—
considered inappropriate at the time for a woman— shows Venny on the floor of her studio not posed at all. Note she is wearing black, an interesting symbolism for an artist in that black absorbs all color and is the absence of light. It connotes mysteriousness and pessimism while also acting as a barrier to the outside world, yet maintaining good a definition of an artist as one can ponder. Yet here Venny, although on the floor, is not aloof or sad but being herself, which is what all portraiture needs to be.

Hanna is unique as a voice of calm and tranquility, yet manages to impact the viewer in spite of herself. This is an artist who is unafraid to paint what she feels in a way that is not hyperbole or shocking like much the modernism that would come in short decades after her. Pauli reminds us to savour the simplicity of our world in the short time we have to enjoy it.


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