Ivana Kobilca

Ivana Kobilca painting, circa 1915. National Gallery of Slovenia

Born in 1861 in Ljubljana, where she died in 1926. Considered to be the most important Slovenian female painter.

Ivana Kobilca was the first Slovenian female painter who made a living with her work. From an early age, she wanted to push boundaries: both socially, refusing to submit to the role of woman expected of her at the time, and artistically, wishing to become a proper painter, an artist. To achieve both, she had to leave Ljubljana and move to European metropolises: Vienna, Munich, Paris, and Berlin.

At the time when Kobilca decided to pursue painting, there was not a single painting academy in Europe that accepted female students – the less reputable female academies were the only available option. The main reason for this was a moral one: the foundation of painting is anatomy, and to know it one has to observe the naked body. The thought of allowing women to do that seemed unacceptable to their male guardians, as did the possibility of having women and men spend long hours in the studio together. Kobilca and her contemporaries had no choice but to learn from various painting masters, even though breaking into the art market in that era required formal education as well as practical knowledge.

As the canon remains almost exclusively male, the doors are still closed to female artists of her time to this day. In addition to paintings by Ivana Kobilca, the permanent collection of the National Gallery displays the works of only four other female painters. Kobilca’s near-contemporaries, Henrika Šantel (1874–1940) and Roza Klein Sternen (1867–1956) themselves received their education from the female academy in Munich, whereas the younger Elda Piščanec (1897–1967) was able to obtain some education in Ljubljana and later at academies in Zagreb and Florence. The life story of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), one of the most famous European 18th-century painters whose works caused quite a stir, was completely different. The most scandalous of her paintings was Self-portrait with Her Daughter, Julie (1786), which portrays the painter with a smile exposing her teeth, a sight considered unacceptable and vulgar at the time.

From an early age, Ivana Kobilca strived to push social and artistic boundaries.

Almost exactly one hundred years after Le Brun escaped the guillotine in Paris, Kobilca moved to the city for two years (1891–1893). Europe’s capital of art left a mark not only on her work but also on her life: she spent most of her time in a commune with three female painters (Maria Slavona, Rosa Pfäffinger and Käthe Kollwitz) and painter and art dealer Willy Gretor. The latter was a skilled manipulator of young women, which had fatal consequences for Kobilca’s roommates; two out of four got pregnant by him while Rosa Pfäffinger’s fatal love for the man ended up costing her most of her wealth and her mental health. Despite her wild life in Paris, Kobilca achieved something only a few people ever did: she became associate member of the French Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and was presented at their Salon, the most important annual exhibition in that period.

Ivana Kobilca was no conventional bourgeois woman, as one might wrongly conclude based on a superficial glance at her paintings, but a full-blooded woman who knew how to enjoy life, was prepared to take risks for her artwork, and did not pay much heed to social norms and habits. A testament to this fact is an anecdote according to which Emperor Franz Joseph, after seeing it at an exhibition in Budapest, wanted to buy her self-portrait (1894–1895) for the local collection, but she fearlessly refused him and instead offered him another painting, Girl in an Armchair (1891–1892). This painting found its place at the National Gallery a few years ago and represents the highlight of female portraits by Ivana Kobilca. Gazing from the canvas at the spectator is a pair of lively, intelligent eyes of a woman whose face and posture show that she is much more than she is prepared to reveal. This is only one of Kobilca’s masteries: reserved expressions and well-measures features that hide much more than they disclose.

The National Gallery of Slovenia

The National Gallery’s permanent collection includes several works by Ivana Kobilca. Gallery visitors chose her painting Summer (1889–1890) as their favourite work of art. The National Gallery is accessible to people with various disabilities.