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Making an impression Martha Stettler: a modern female artist from another time

As a woman working as an artist in the late 19th century, it was never going to be easy for Martha Stettler. Despite her talent and support from her family, the Swiss artist struggled to find a place in the art history books. Now, her work is being celebrated in a retrospective where it all began: the Bern Museum of Fine Arts.

Martha Stettler was born into a bourgeois family in Bern, on September 25, 1870. Her father, Eugen Stettler - the architect of the Bern museum - recognised and supported his daughter’s artistic talent. 

Having sketched the complete collection of plaster sculptures in the museum her father had helped to build, her devotion to drawing paved the way to an education at Bern’s College of Art in 1886 and later on, to Paris aged 23 in 1893. She made Paris her home and it was here that she came to be mentored by the French painter Lucien Simon, who introduced Martha to impressionist painting.

Together with her partner Alice Dannenberg, she founded the ‘Académie de la Grande Chaumière’ in Paris in 1904, where she later became its head, much to the disdain of Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, who said, “We do not want women here!”.external link He was determined to prevent women having any access to the Swiss professional association of painters and sculptors (GSMBA).

Stettler ran the academy successfully in spite of the misogynistic attitudes she was faced with in her work. It was favoured by students because of its easy-going approach to learning, and the school’s alumni included a star-studded cast; Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim and Louise Bourgeois.

Stettler also became the very first and only woman to exhibit her art at the 12th Venice Biennale in 1920.

A retrospective of her life and work can be seen at the Bern Museum of Fine Artsexternal link until July 29.