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The revival of Albert Anker: from old-school artist to progressive activist

Albert Anker's "The Reader" (Die Lesende), 1883. The exhibition at the Bern Museum of Fine Arts highlights the artist as a promoter of literacy for women when this idea was a taboo.
Albert Anker’s “The Reader” (Die Lesende), 1883. A Bern exhibition has highlighted the artist as a promoter of women’s literacy at a time when the idea was taboo. © Le Locle, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lucas Olivet

His house in Ins has been turned into a museum and the Bern Museum of Fine Arts is staging an exhibition of his works. The quintessential Swiss artist, much-loved by traditionalists, has found new praise as an early advocate of women’s education. 

Though little-known outside his home country, Albert Anker is one of Switzerland’s best-loved and best-known artists. Prints of his oil paintings of children are staples on calendars and in classrooms.

He also has famous fans. “I often think about his work,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1883. “I find it so proficient and delicately interpreted. He truly is one of the old school.”   

Yet Anker has not always been viewed as a subject fit for serious art history scholarship. But that is now changing. 

The Bern Museum of Fine Arts (Kunstmuseum) is the latest of several Swiss museums to devote an exhibition to the artist, who was born in 1831 in the village of Ins, near Neuchâtel, and who died there in 1910. Meanwhile Anker’s home in Ins has recently been converted into an exhibition and research centre, which was inaugurated on June 7.  

Former Federal Councillor Christoph Blocher poses with pictures by Albert Anker in the Tal church in Herrliberg, where some of his collection is on display
Former government minister Christoph Blocher poses with some Anker paintings in the Tal church in Herrliberg, where some of his collection is on display. Keystone-SDA/Michael Buholzer

The exhibition Albert Anker: Reading Girls, on show in Bern until July 21, takes a compact, focused look at one aspect of Anker’s work, placing it in relation to his political commitment to girls’ education – not a given in the Switzerland of his time. Kathleen Bühler, the curator of the exhibition, says it aims to show Anker’s progressive side. 

It’s a different perspective on an artist often associated with conservative Swiss values and a certain nostalgia for “the good old days”. One of Anker’s most passionate fans is Christoph Blocher, the former leader of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who has the biggest private collection of his work in the world. In a 2023 interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, Blocher compared Anker’s paintings to a “good sermon”: his work is seen as wholesome and virtuous because, as Blocher put it, “he painted the true beauty of life and of people”. 

Traditionalist by default

One reason Anker is not well-known outside Switzerland is that most of his work remains in the country – about half of his 800 oil paintings are in Swiss museums, while the other half are in private collections like Blocher’s. Less well-known are his drawings and watercolours, which he didn’t sell and which remained mainly in the family. 

But it is also fair to say he was no trailblazer as an artist, and as a result his impact on global art history has been modest. Anker remained true to realism and the official Paris Salon – then the most important art event of the Western world – at a time when the Impressionists were breaking away to stage their own exhibitions.

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Anker was an admirer of the Impressionists, but he also had six children to feed and needed commissions; he was in no position to risk joining the avant-garde.  

Yet his paintings of individuals in the rural community where he lived are more than an idealised portrayal of country life – they are valuable historical documents.

For example, a painting in the Bern exhibition, Exam at the Village School  (1862), which was commissioned at the time by canton Bern, shows a group of inspectors and local dignitaries visiting a rural school. Children – boys and girls – read from a text hanging on a blackboard. The room is decorated with garlands and the children are dressed in their Sunday best for the occasion – though not all of them are wearing shoes.

Albert Anker's "Exam at the Village School" (1862)
Albert Anker’s “Exam at the Village School” (1862). (C) 2008 Museum Of Fine Arts Bern

The exams, and compulsory schooling, were the result of new laws passed by canton Bern; it was not until 1874 that compulsory education was anchored in the national constitution. 

The taboo of the literate woman

Anker could read in seven languages and was deeply committed to education. He was secretary to the Ins school committee, and later in life was involved in the founding of a high school in the town – a new type of institute which offered more academic children an alternative to primary school, even in rural areas.

Before that he held a variety of political roles: he was a member of Bern’s cantonal parliament, where he recommended the approval of a decree to build the Kunstmuseum; in 1889, he was elected to the federal art commission.  

"Girl with a Loaf of Bread", 1887
“Girl with a Loaf of Bread”, 1887. Wikimedia Commons

Studious girls feature frequently in his work. A portrait in blue ink on paper of his nine-year-old daughter Cécile shows her deeply immersed in a book while sitting in a pool of light, casting a deep blue shadow on the wall behind her. 

Rosa and Bertha Gugger Knitting  (1885)External link shows an older girl who has set aside her pen and book to lift her little sister onto her lap and help her with her knitting. The work illustrates Anker’s technical brilliance: hands are notoriously difficult to paint, and here he shows them engaged in intricate work.  

Even in his portraits of girls engaged in other activities, books and study are hinted at. An 1881 portrait of his elegant daughter Marie shows her carrying a school satchel. The 1887 Girl with a Loaf of Bread  is clearly running a domestic errand, but a leather-bound book peeks out of her basket of groceries.  

When Anker won a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1866 for his Writing Class II – showing two young girls concentrating on a piece of paper, one holding a quill – a Swiss magazine reproduced another version of this motif with the derogatory caption The Little Bluestockings. This may have been someone’s idea of a joke, but it nonetheless serves as a reminder that education for girls at the time was controversial.  

Writing Class II
“Writing Class II”. Museum zu Allerheiligen Schaffhausen

At home in Ins

In his home town in Ins, a village between Bern and Neuchâtel, Anker’s studio still looks as if he could return from his travels at any moment and get straight to work. His easel awaits, as does a pouch of unanswered letters attached to the wall by his desk. His paints are lined up neatly on a shelf in a glass-fronted cabinet. The skylights he had installed – reportedly the first of their kind in Switzerland, inspired by a visit to the Louvre – let in a soft northern light, ideal for painting.  

“He used to say his skylights were better than the Louvre’s because they were watertight,” says Daniela Schneuwly, the head of the Albert Anker Centre.  

A portrait of the Swiss painter Albert Anker, painted by Wilhelm Steinhausen, hangs in his former studio in the Albert Anker House in Ins.
A portrait of Anker, painted by Wilhelm Steinhausen, hangs in his former studio in Ins. Keystone/Peter Klaunzer

The centre opened to the public on June 7 in Anker’s home, which has remained virtually untouched for more than a century.  

At the top of a primrose-filled garden is a new wooden building for exhibitions designed by Ins architect Marcel Hegg. Discreetly kitted out with cutting-edge museum technology, it blends into the rustic setting. Sheep graze in the adjacent field.

The research centre in the Anker family home aims to bring to life an artist who operated on an international level but lived mostly on a very local one. Until the last 20 years of his life, Anker spent winters in Paris and exhibited regularly at the Salon. But he was also deeply embedded in country life in Ins and portrayed many of the villagers in his works.

He was a member of the church and school councils and the male-voice choir. (His wife Anna was less enthusiastic and found life in Ins too narrow; she insisted on keeping an apartment in Neuchâtel, Schneuwly says.)

An easel of the Swiss painter Albert Anker stands in his former studio in the Albert Anker House.
An easel of the Swiss painter Albert Anker stands in his former studio in the Albert Anker House. KEYSTONE/Peter Klaunzer

Time capsule

The house remained in the hands of the Anker family for seven generations after having been built by Albert’s grandfather in 1803. Both Rudolf and his son, Samuel Anker, were vets; the animals they treated were kept in a stable on the ground floor. 

Albert inherited the house in 1860 and converted the hayloft into a studio. After he died in 1910, his daughter inherited it. But the family barely changed anything in the house and kept the furniture, kitchen and studio exactly as it was, creating a time capsule of bourgeois rural life in early 1900s Switzerland.  

Various mementos are on display: for example, a leather school satchel belonging to Anker’s daughter Marie (which she carries over a shoulder in a portrait in the Kunstmuseum exhibition) and a traditional costume dress which Anna Anker brought back from Odessa.

A library of 1,200 books in several languages meanwhile testifies to Anker’s broad range of interests – he was passionate about politics, education, technology and archaeology as well as art. He also kept a vineyard and made wine.

His painting, as van Gogh wrote, may have been “old school”, but his social engagement put him at the forefront of his era.

Edited by Virginie Mangin and Eduardo Simantob/dos

The exhibition at the Bern Museum of Fine Arts is a cooperation with the Centre Albert Anker in the artist’s home in Ins, which opened to visitors in June. The Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny meanwhile also ran a recent exhibition devoted to Anker’s children (until June 30).

More information on the Bern exhibition is available hereExternal link.

To visit the studio in Ins, visitors can book a tour.External link

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