July 24, 2007

Eva Bonnier

1. Detail of a photograph of Eva Bonnier, ca. 1905.The artistic patrimony of the town where I live is, to be frank, none too inspiring. My first impression on visiting the municipal art gallery was that its permanent collection had an apologetic ‘sorry, but this is the best we could scrape together’ air about it, with portraits of local dignitaries jostling for wall-space with unimpressive maritime scenes, drab townscapes, and angst-filled, impastoed abstracts. One painting, however, caught my eye, and I spent the greater part of my visit staring at it. This was a small, informal portrait, of a blonde-haired girl with sad-looking eyes (see fig. 2 below). From the caption I learned that it was painted ca. 1906, that the girl’s name was Julia Hasselberg, and the painter’s, Eva Bonnier.

2. Detail of a postcard print of Eva Bonnier's 'Portrait of Julia Hasselberg,' ca. 1906. 3. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'The Housemaid (Portrait of Marie Blanck),' 1890.
4. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Lady Visiting the Studio (Tora Kjellberg),' 1886. 5. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'At the Studio Door (Ida Ericson),' 1885.

Eva Bonnier was born in Stockholm, 1857, into a wealthy, upper middle-class Jewish family. Her father, Albert, was a successful and influential publisher (the company he founded is still one of the largest Swedish publishing concerns today, and is still run by the Bonnier family). From 1875, Eva studied at a private art academy, later enrolling in the Women’s Department of the Kungliga Akademien för de fria konsterna, the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. In 1883 she moved to Paris, apparently one of more than fifty Nordic women artists studying and working there at that time. She attended classes at the Académie Colarossi and painted: these years in Paris were by far her most productive.

6. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Magdalena,' 1887. 7. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'The Seamstresses,' 1887.
8. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'On the Balcony (Rebecka Nathanson-Kempff,' 1886. 9. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Portrait of Hanna Marcus' 1886.

While in Paris, Bonnier met a sculptor named Per Hasselberg with whom she had a ‘complicated relationship:’ the couple were to be married, but their engagement was broken off in 1892, by which time she was back in Stockholm, trying, with only limited success, to establish herself as a portraitist. In 1894 Hasselberg died suddenly, leaving a new-born illegitimate daughter, Julia, who Bonnier adopted. The sad-eyed girl in the portrait must therefore have been about twelve years old when she posed for her adoptive mother. Shortly afterwards, Bonnier abandoned her attempts to make a career from painting. She is reputed to have been an intelligent, strong-willed and sharp-tongued woman who ‘could neither in private nor as an artist charm or flatter her contemporaries.’

10. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Portrait of Jenny Bonnier' 1886. 11. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Convalsecent (Lisen Bonnier),' 1890.
12. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Portrait of Oscar Levertin,' 1892. 13. Detail of Eva Bonnier's 'Self-Portrait,' 1886.

Although no longer a working artist, Bonnier remained active for some time in public life, but, after the turn of the century, she gradually wihdrew into isolation. In 1909, she took her own life. Although she was never quite a virtuoso with the brush, her portraits nevertheless seem acute and ‘true,’ yet not unsympathetic. My source for all but one of these images and for most of the information above is a book by Margareta Gynning entitled Det Ambivalenta Perspektivet: Eva Bonnier och Hanna Hirsch-Pauli i 1880-talets konstliv. Fig. 2 I scanned from a postcard print I picked up at the Blekinge Museum, where the painting is currently on display. Some more of Bonnier’s paintings can be seen reproduced here and here. There is an exhibition devoted to her work running currently at the Thielska Gallery in Stockholm. Posted by misteraitch at July 24, 2007 03:12 PM


Thankyou for this post, Mr.H - I felt quite transfixed by these portraits and I've spent quite a while looking at them. I'm not an artist. I'm a doctor. Every day I meet new patients and every day I am amazed and impressed by people. This little Julia completely captures me. She has such a look of sadness yet also some kind of strength. Together these qualities give her faraway, kind of cut-off, look. There's a mixture of hurt and the toughness that pain can bring. It's powerful. Then I look at these other portraits and I see similarly powerful people. All of them have a fiercely independent look. None of them look weak. And then I read your really interesting biog of the artist and especially that phrase "intelligent, strong-willed and sharp-tongued" and it gets me wondering......how often do artists see themselves in their subjects? I wonder how unconsciously she has seen and brought out aspects of their characters which resonate with her own. And I wonder if the same is true of other artists.
I think you're right. These are definitely not unsympathetic portraits. These subjects are so REAL. Very impressive. No wonder you got caught by Julia for ages in the museum.

Posted by: Bob Leckridge on July 26, 2007 12:20 AM

I am the granddaughter of Julia Hasselberg. I live in Hamilton, New Jersey and have lived here for fifty years now. I was born in Stockholm in 1938 to Kerstin Agneta Backdahl and David Ragnar Spangberg. I remember my grandmother as being a wonderful person who often spoke about her father Per Hasselberg and her mother Eva Bonnier. My grandmother Julia married Gustav Backdahl in 1912 and they had four children one whom was my mother. I have always had a great regard for my family and it is with great pride that I follow my history on line. To read about my grandmother as a young girl moves me to tears. She was a very important person in my life. Thank you for your comments regarding her and the recognition of her mother's accomplishments as a painter.


Berit Monica Perna

Posted by: Monica Perna on July 29, 2007 01:51 AM

Berit—many thanks for your comment. I admit I had wondered what became of Julia. I am very happy to know that the girl in the portrait came to be a well-loved grandmother.

Posted by: misteraitch on July 30, 2007 08:34 AM
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