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Swiss artist enraptured by Paris

Albert Anker's still life "Tea and angel cakes" (1873)

(Keystone)

No painter bridged the wide cultural gap between rural Switzerland and 19th century Paris better than Albert Anker.

This is borne out by a new exhibition highlighting the influence of the French capital on the work of an artist known for his vivid portrayals of life in Bernese countryside.

The title of the exhibition at Bern's Fine Arts Museum - "Albert Anker in Paris: Between Ideal and Reality" - says it all.

Many of Anker's paintings idealise his native village of Ins and the surrounding area, while also depicting the harsher reality of living in the Swiss countryside at that time.

Every picture tells a story, whether it is of a child asleep in the hay, of a scene in a soup kitchen providing food for the poor or a still life of a cold snack.

In this first major retrospective of his work for over 20 years, the museum has brought together those images - so popular among many Swiss - juxtaposing them with Anker's Parisian works.

Classical themes

Anker's first visit to the French capital in 1851 marked the beginning of a love affair with a city far removed from his Swiss roots.

From 1860 to 1890, he spent his winters in Paris, producing portraits and paintings with classical themes that were hugely popular with the Parisians.

The Bern museum also draws comparisons between Anker's work and that of his Parisian contemporaries and influences.

It shows how his oeuvre reflected the taste of the times and that he drew inspiration from the same sources as such internationally known salon painters as Jules Breton, François Bonvin and Auguste Toulmouche.

Clean-living

However, the painter's scandal-free lifestyle was far removed from the bohemian image cultivated by many of his contemporaries in Paris.

The son of a veterinarian, this former theology student had once hoped to become a clergyman.

"He was a clean-living, hard-working man from a conservative family background in the Bern region," co-curator Marc Fehlmann told swissinfo.

"As far as we know, he was faithful to his wife, by whom he had six children, and regularly sent money back to her in Switzerland when he was in Paris."

French taste

Anker chose Paris for his art studies because it was closer to Neuchâtel - the family had moved there when he was five - than the other major art centres of Munich and Düsseldorf.

"Had he not gone to Paris, his style might have turned out darker," said Fehlmann. "Instead, as a pupil of Charles Gleyre, he learned to develop the French taste for colour."

But Fehlmann added that Anker was his own man. "He didn't follow in a slavish way the style of teachers such as Gleyre and nor did he copy such extreme realists as Courbet.

"By avoiding extremes and binding together various poles, you could say that his work was a classic case of Swiss compromise."

"Albert Anker in Paris: Between Ideal and Reality" runs in Bern's fine arts museum until August 31.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Key facts

The son of a veterinarian, Albert Anker (1831-1910) was born at Ins in canton Bern.
He studied theology at Bern University but after visiting Paris in 1851 decided to make a career as an artist.
Anker became a pupil of Charles Gleyre in Paris and until 1890 spent his winters there and summers in Ins.
Although strongly attached to Paris, Anker remained close to his roots and played a key role in the inauguration of Bern's fine arts museum in 1879.

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