The Swiss Norman Rockwell

The Swiss have all seen an Anker painting.

Girl Knitting by Albert Anker (public domain photo)

They’ve seen reproductions of his work everywhere—in their schoolbooks, on candy boxes, calenders, postage stamps.  Hotel walls often have or used to have an Anker reproduction in the rooms or around the reception desk.  Albert Anker is as Swiss as Norman Rockwell is American.

The Farmers and the Newspaper (public domain photo)

But most of the rest of the world have never heard of him or seen even one of his paintings. The Swiss have done little to change this. They fondle him like a mother and don’t mind if he stays at home with her. But they smile and begin to purr if you show an interest in him.  They think the things he paints are their own family affairs; the paintings themselves, old family snapshots.

Sunday Afternoon 1861 (public domain photo)

Anker lived in the nineteenth-century (1831–1910).  Switzerland wasn’t the rich country we know now. It was poor. The mountain people had very hard lives. The cantons fought over religion.    Anker’s father wanted his son to study theology but the boy had a painter’s vocation. “Art seemed to me a forbidden paradise,” he said, looking back.  While attending a German university he couldn’t keep his eyes off the great paintings he saw in collections  and he finally persuaded his dad to let him off the theology hook and become an artist.

He went straight to Paris and found a painting teacher (Charles Gleyre).  There he saw what was brewing in the painting world: Monet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec were changing the focus of art and even the representation of everything; but he went on doing his own thing. He painted the people back home.

The Village Tailor (public domain photo)

He sent his works to shows in Paris and Switzerland and was immediately successful. Galleries that refused to show the new geniuses gladly invited Anker to exhibit his work.

From then on, he painted and painted and lived happily ever after. In winter he lived in Paris and in summer, in Switzerland, in his grandfather’s big house in Ins, near Bern.  He was loved and respected. There were all kinds of prizes: gold medals, Legion of Honor, even a doctorate from the University of Bern.
He married and had six kids. Now and then he took a break and travelled around Europe.

This painting won him a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1865. He loved to watch and to paint children.

On the Oven (public domain photo)

Here is a sick girl playing with her dolls. Notice the great details such as that knitted sweater, the looks of attention of the two children, the turn of the girl’s hand as she sits the doll in its little sofa.

Here are children having breakfast:

Children’s Breakfast (public domain photo)

Anker had liberal views on education and painted many pictures showing the packed old schoolrooms and orphanages of his time.

Soup for the Poor (public domain photo)

He loads his paintings with fine details of objects and dress.  But it is his depiction of behavior which everywhere makes you smile or nod. The children in a picture like this are each a study of some familiar human trait or conduct.  No wonder the Swiss love him.

Village School (public domain photo)

But his deepest paintings are about the aged. This one of the sick old man in thought while his grandson reads the Bible is as good as painting gets. It goes far beyond mere decoration or easy sentimentality.

Grandfather’s prayer (public domain photo)

See also  The Notary and The Fortune-Teller.

An exhibition of Anker’s work at the Bern Kunstmuseum (ending September 5, 2010) commemorated the hundredth anniversary of his death.


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19 Responses to The Swiss Norman Rockwell

  1. Rich says:

    “The Swiss have all seen an Anker painting”
    I can confirm that.
    On candy boxes, in hotel rooms, at parish halls, on stamps; wherever in Switzerland.
    That you compare him with Norman Rockwell is quite appropriate in my opinion.
    A painting that suits a candy box must have some illustrative qualitiy.

    As far as I know, Norman Rockwell is a famous illustrator, Albert Anker’s paintings pass as fine art. I always have been wondering about the fine line that divides an illustrator like Norman from a fine artist like Albert.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Norman Rockwell is an “illustrator”, Anker is not.
      Rockwell has a thesis—he is a propagandist of the American way of life; and his medium is humor and sentimentality. He puts brilliant observation and technical skill at the service of an opinion (an ideology) or a wisecrack. That disqualifies him as a great artist—which doesn’t bother him, of course. He simply paints what he likes. And he likes life better than art. He has no use for the ideal; he loves actual, everyday materialism, including people.

      Anker has a better claim. He does sometimes meet Rockwell in his schoolhouse or orphanage pictures but usually his aim is not so specific, nor his call so cheap. In his best work the subject is the abstract “condition humaine”, not specific political or sociological issues. Compare Hemingway and Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s ideology and wet sentimentalism keep most of his work on the ground. Hemingway has no thesis, except some metaphysical emptiness.
      Steinbeck shows you a poor grapepicker to arouse your indignation at the injustice of a system; Hemingway shows you a Spanish peasant to arouse your admiration for the stubborn heroism and nobility of mankind.

  2. Rich says:

    Maybe things overlap a bit here and there; an illustrator in a rare moment approaching la “condition humaine”, or a fine artist, let’s say like Joshua Reynolds for instance, finding himself at the service of some kind of ideology.

    In any case I very much appreciate your answer: it makes sense to me.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    An interesting comparison of illustrator and artist, Swallows, as well as a comparison of Rockwell and Anker.

    I hope I won’t get off on too much of a tangent here but since I began doing bird art four years ago I’ve found a new respect for illustration. It is odd for me because I was once of the school that anything that relied on subject matter was by its nature inferior. Strict abstraction for me. Of course I no longer think that.

    Not to say that you can’t do realistic work and be a valid artist as you well know. The hard question I guess is what separates illustration from representational fine art. I don’t know the answer but I think you’ve touched on it in comparing Rockwell and Anker. Perhaps going for a formulaic emotional reaction is the problem. I know I often look at bird art, and often bird art that wins prizes and gets into shows, and see exactly that: a formula to get an emotional reaction. But I’ve been trying to be more open-minded. We’ll see how long that lasts! I do think it is a great struggle to be an artist who uses nature, especially wildlife, as subject and not be seen by the ‘high’ art world as nothing but a sentimental illustrator.

    By the way an old friend of mine has been a lawyer in Switzerland for years. He’s a big fan of De Stael. I’ll have to ask to him what he thinks of Anker.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: The subject shouldn’t matter (that it is an animal, and a little one), should it? Only the treatment. (I will pass on the abstract vs. representational art discussion for now.)
      Doesn’t everything ultimately depend on what the artists feels about his subject? That will determine what he wants to say. What does he feel for the bird he paints? Is it a cute little thing? Is it a child to be protected? Is it a strange forest spirit—an elusive fairy? Is it one more victim of the pitiless nature machine? Is it a fascinating color flasher?
      What draws you to birds, Ken?

      Fine art is about formal beauty: not so much how the subject (bird) looks in nature as about how it looks on the canvas. In the best art, formal and emotional impact come at the same time, just as in the best poetry, rhyme and meaning clap their hands. The “message” of both is as much one thing as the other. If form tips the balance, then the work seems cold and goes towards mere decoration. But sentiment is the usual star of the work, or the bully.

      Since we need to humanize everything to appreciate it, animals are usually turned into people, however subliminally.
      Maybe one has to slice up the term “sentiment”, too. It ain’t all homey slobbery.
      Look at Goya’s heroic bulls. That’s art AND it is a punch of sentiment.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    Very well said Swallows. From the early line about what the artist ‘feels’ about his subject to the last line about Goya. I have to ‘clap my hands’ on your summary of what I think is a very complicated subject. I think you’ve summarized it admirably. It is true that maybe sentimentality has to be sliced up, just I think as ‘entertainment’ has to be sliced up when talking about books or movies. It is a complex world but at the heart of it I think is the artist being true to his feelings and then having the formal wherewithal to express it.

    As for what draws me to birds that is another huge subject, one I’ve never tried to put down in words. I know how it began. I was flyfishing for trout and having no luck after many days. Then I saw these birds flocking together over the trout stream and I wondered what they were. My love of nature and birds have grown together over the years. But there is the question of knowledge. Part of the ‘sport’ of birding is being able to identify a bird when you only get the briefest glimpse. So you learn more and more about them. That then appears in my art, well hopefully anyway.

    But then I think well I don’t want my art to be just for birders. I used to hate art that I was told had metaphors, secret meanings, etc. that was only available to the initiated. Special knowledge was necessary in order to appreciate it. I hope that my own art is not heading in that direction, fully available only to birders. But it is a fear in the back of my mind. Hopefully that’s not the case but I do worry. I have to say I’m more fully engaged with what I do now than probably with any other art I’ve done. And I do think an artist’s engagement also shows through. So sometimes even the oddest artist, if fully engaged with what he does, still has a universal appeal.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks Ken. Of course if you run off into the wild you will leave the rest of us behind. I can understand. I used to feel the call of the “lovely, dark, and deep” woods when I lived in America. But here the nearest to “woods” I can get is one of the as-yet unploughed fields or an ancient olive grove. I’m no birder but I know most of the birds I see. I look up at the storks in the steeple and stop walking on the country road to watch the occasional eagle overhead. I feed my sparrows at the window. But nature as the wild thing you know and its great variety of birds is gone from cities here.

  5. Rich says:

    Besides a bull: can a car be rendered into an object of art?
    If the subject of art won’t matter: quite possible.
    The subject occured to me recently while looking at some vintage advertisements. Ads of luxurious American cars in every ambiance; great designs opulently rendered by some deft illustrators.
    There is perfect form there, there is sentiment – at least some kind of it.
    But does all that perfection amount to fine art?

    If I take a walk around the rural hemisphere of my habitation , every village has a house here and there adorned with a mural. Often you find the local landscape depicted and a very popular subject on these private murals shows a peasant ploughing; and the plough is pulled by farm horses.
    A farmer nowadays ploughing his soil with horses certainly would be laughed at.
    However among all these murals I never ever encountered a depicted plough pulled by a tractor…it’s horses and horses and horses…
    Condition Humaine?

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: A car is already somebody’s design, somebody’s idea of sleekness or elegance or rugged independence or something. The manufacturer chose his design to appeal to a specific target group of customers. It is meant to entice them. Wasn’t art supposed to be “disinterested”? When you see some interested intention behind a picture or statue its aura disappears. Look at all the war or ideology propaganda pieces (starting with those Augustus statues carved in the first century). Ruskin would say only a moral intention is allowed—in fact, that there is no art without morality and its appeal is in its illustration of great moral truths. The Sistine ceiling is Bible illustration, after all.
      But my point is, the car is already styled. Now you want to paint a picture of the thing—why? Those “deft illustrators” were hired to bring out just what was sexy about it. That’s aesthetics in the beauty parlor sense.

      Artists have always included man-made objects in their paintings, though they have usually made their own versions instead of copying. Velazquez copied the Infantas’ dresses. But it is his way of rendering them and their aesthetic mission in the paintings, which are portraits, that keep them from vulgarity.
      Haven’t I seen tractors in modern paintings? There are trains in Van Gogh and Degas. It’s always a question of their purpose.

  6. Rich says:

    “Disinterested” art sounds fine. An antidote to our times of rampant commercialism.

    Thanks for your exhaustive explanation.

  7. wrjones says:

    What a great painter! Thanks for bringing him to my attention. Is there a book of his work?

  8. erikatakacs says:

    The Village Taylor and Grandfather’s Prayer (what a bad title, the painting is NOT about that) are works of a master, the others are good but nowhere near the former two. Maybe the world should know about him. Thanks for sharing.

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi erika! I had to look up “andacht” in my dictionary. It gave words like “recollection” or “meditation”, which I would have preferred. But my German friend told me it was more like “prayer”. It could be that Anker really meant prayer–after all, the kid seems to be reading the Bible. I agree that that painting and the one of the tailor stand above the others. You didn’t say why you thought so.

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  10. ivdanu says:

    I didn’t know this post, 100swallows! I like it very much and Anker is a small revelation for me. I will compare him not only with Norman Rockwell (comparison which is most apporopiate but not absolute) but also with Chardin and yes, why not? with Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He is serious like a Swiss, doesn’t have the spank, the maliciosness of Rockwell (one cannot imagine Anker doing the thing Rockwll did with the little kitten who saves the house from fire…), nor the bright colors of Pieter Brueghel, nor the picturality of chardin but he has something of everyone of those.
    As for the separation or difference or whatever you want to call that labelling :artist” “illustrator. etc. in my humble opinion (not less ferm just because it’s humble) there shouldn’t be a separation or a difference. There is good ppainting and there is bad painting. My eyes and my gut and my heart tells which which is which. As Delacroix put it: “La bonne peinture c’est un fête pour l’oeil” . If it’s not a feast for the eye (add your heart and your gut if you want more degrees…) it’s not good. And that’s that. I don’t give a penny for a Mondrian of the abstract phase (he was a good painter before getting his head screwd but “ideas. and concepts…) but Anker is no doubt a painter for which your eye is keen to see. You don’t get bored. Sometimes, the majority of people know a good artist from a bad, boring one. No matter how much money he makes at the auctions or how much some “experts” sing his/hers praises…

    • 100swallows says:

      Danu: Thanks. It’s good to hear from you again here. I remember Ruskin’s saying that a “great painting is one with the greatest number of truths”. Now, Ruskin is hardly a reference critic for the art that came after his time (“so right and yet so wrong”, as Kenneth Clark sighed after re-reading him years later). But he was saying what Delacroix and you say in another way. Yes, the eyes, but also food for the heart: neither should go hungry. There should be surprises everywhere, even those of a homey familiarity. I’m enough of the Platonist to ask for a call to another sphere too. Rockwell doesn’t have much of that but there are little Siren notes sometimes in Anker. It may be too late to ask for soulfood in art but most twentieth century experiments leave the heart hungry too.

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