Friday, August 27, 2010


Louise Abbema, ca. 1885
Unidentified photographer
(Artists in their Paris studios), 1880-1890
Archives of American Art

A Game of Croquet

Louise Abbema
Louise Abbéma (b. 1858, d. 1927) started painting in her teens and was the pupil of two well known artists, Charles Chaplin and Jean-Jacques Henner. It was evident that she was destined to be an artist and even at the age of fourteen she was producing wonderful pieces of art such as the painting named Game of Croquet. She was an only child and was encouraged by her parents in her artistic pursuits.
A French painter in the Impressionist style, as well as an engraver, sculptor, and writer, Louise Abbéma was one of the most successful women artists of her day. Her media were etching, pastel, and particularly watercolor; as a writer, she collaborated with the journals Gazette des Beaux-Arts and L'Art. She is best remembered for her portraits and genre scenes, and for her relationship with Sarah Bernhardt, but Abbéma also painted flowers again and again. They appear throughout her oeuvre--women hold them in bunches, they fill vases, and they are the subjects of her still-lifes.
She was the great granddaughter of actress Mlle Contat and Comte Louis de Narbonne. Through her aristocratic family, she had an early introduction to the arts. Tellingly, however, in 1903, Abbéma wrote that it was lesbian painter Rosa Bonheur who "...decided me to become an artist."
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Elégante place de la Concorde
Carnavalet Museum

Portraits of a brother and sister
The Luppe family
oil on panel

Jeanne Samary (1857-1890)
Sociétaire de la Comédie-Française
Donation François-Gérard Seligmann (2000)

Sarah Bernhardt
The portrait lesbian actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom she met five years earlier, was exhibited at the Paris Salon des Artistes Français of 1876 (at Carolus-Duran's suggestion, she had begun showing work in the Salon the previous year.) Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt was an immediate success for the young painter, and Abbéma became Bernhardt's official portraitist.
Soon after this success, Abbéma made a bronze medallion of Bernhardt (the only known sculpture by her), which she exhibited at the Salon in 1878. In turn Bernhardt, herself a sometime sculptor, exhibited a marble bust of Abbéma at the same Salon. Abbéma later made drawings after both sculptures. Abbéma and Bernhardt maintained a close friendship throughout their lives.
Abbéma's long relationship with Bernhardt, coupled with the fact that she never married, has been the basis for the widespread assumption that she was a lesbian.
(Carla Williams at
Sarah Bernhardt was a great actress of the time, indeed, some say the greatest. She appeared on the stage in both Europe and America. She also appeared in some of the very first silent movies. Louise created pieces of art featuring the actress throughout her life and many said that they were lovers. The well known actress was also a painter, sculptress and writer and perhaps it was the mutual love of the arts which drew them together. They were both known for being rather eccentric and unconventional.

Self Portrait, (about 1895-1900)
Louise Abbema was enormously talented and she also received commissions to paint other well known figures of the day such as Ferdinand de Lesseps, the well known engineer who created the Suez Canal and Don Pedro the Emperor of Brazil. She also painted a portrait of Charles Garnier, the famous nineteenth century architect responsible for the design of the Opera House in Paris.
Her talents included interior design and she also received a number of civic commissions to paint panels and murals in such places as the Opera House in Paris and also the many town halls and theatres in the city. She also painted the Governors Palace in Dakar in Senegal. She was designated an Official Painter of the Third Republic. However, she did not only accept commissions for the ‘great’ buildings of the time, she was also happy to grant requests for her to produce works of art in private homes. She was a regular exhibitor at the Paris Salon. She also exhibited in Chicago in 1893.

Abbema calendar
A speciality of hers was paintings of watercolors and flowers and she was influenced by Japanese and Chinese painting in this genre. Flowers featured regularly in a number of her works and unlike other artists of the time she did not have a ‘niche’. She was multi-talented and also worked on illustrations for periodicals of the day and is well known for illustrations she created for calendars.
Among the many honors conferred upon Abbéma was nomination as official painter of the Third Republic. She was also awarded a bronze medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and in 1906 was inducted into the Légion d'Honneur.
Abbéma died in Paris in 1927. By the end of the 20th century, as contributions by women to the arts in past centuries received more critical and historical attention, her works were enjoying a renewed popularity.

Jardin Fleuri
( All images from

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