'The Oyster Girl'

Karl Gussow (Havelberg, 1843-1907 Pasing, Germany)

The serving girl holds out a decorated plate of opened oysters and a lemon.

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Oil on bevelled wood panel
Dimensions: 76.4 x 63cm, (unframed), 88 x 75.5cm, (framed)
Date: 1882
Signed: Signed and dated in top right corner: C. GVSSOW. / Brln. 1882
Accession No: WAG1996.66

This portrayal of a young serving-girl, neatly-dressed in rural peasant costume, holding out a plate of opened oysters and a lemon, is typical of Gussow’s minutely detailed realism.1| Gussow was considered a leading nineteenth-century German exponent of the growing school known as ‘Naturalism’. Anton von Werner, the Director of the Berlin Academy, where Gussow taught between 1875 and 1880, described Gussow’s ideal as being “the exact reproduction of nature”.2| He also noted the artist’s liking for dazzlingly coloured costume-pieces. Gussow’s delight in detail is evident in 'The Oyster Girl' where he has painted even the tiny chips on the rim of the decorated tin-glazed earthenware bowl. 3|

The plate is definitely not the type of luxury ceramic produced by the internationally renowned Berlin porcelain factories. However, the manner in which Gussow has painted the servant-girl’s skin, with its creamy, glowing complexion, and the satiny sheen of her lilac dress-shawl, recalls the effects and colouring of the popular porcelain plaques that were produced in Berlin. The fine and meticulous detail in the Walker’s painting is also reminiscent of the work of seventeenth-century Dutch artists of the so-called fijn-schilder (fine-painters) school, such as Frans van Mieris (1635-1681) and Gerrit Dou (1613-1675). According to the distinguished German art historian Karl Pietschker, the 'Oyster Girl' was the first in a small series of ‘Cabinet-pieces’, which also included 'The Tankard Girl' and the 'Girl with a Shell to her Ear'.4|

At the Berlin Academy Gussow was considered a superb teacher whose students saw him as the ‘regenerator of Painting’.5| His most famous pupil was the German artist Max Klinger (1857-1920) who became celebrated (shortly after leaving Gussow’s studio in 1879) for his surreal print series of a sinisterly animated 'Glove' (first published in 1881). One can see in Klinger’s print cycle, which anticipates Freudian Surrealism in its mixture of reality and dream elements, the influence of Gussow’s sharply focussed naturalism. After Gussow left the teaching staff of the Academy in 1880 he became an especially sought after Berlin-society portrait painter.

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, Gussow’s minute photographic technique and striking contrasts of tone and colour, together with his sentimental subject matter, had lost favour in Berlin. Although in 1898 Pietschker wrote a fairly substantial book on Gussow’s contribution to the development of realism in Germany from 1870 onwards, the Grove Dictionary of Art (1996) only mentioned him briefly as the teacher of artists such as Klinger and his friend the Norwegian artist Christian Krohg (1852-1925). In 1907 Richard Muther condemned him for triviality in his 'History of Modern Painting', but conceded the vigour and directness of some of his figure studies, including 'The Oyster Girl'.6|

Later history

Paintings by Gussow are rarely found in British public collections.7| 'The Oyster Girl' was presented to the Walker because the Gallery already owned Gussow’s, 'Old Man’s Treasure|' (WAG2877), known as 'Das Kätzchen' (‘The Kitten’ in German), which made Gussow’s name when he showed it at the Akademische Kunstausstelung in Berlin in1876. This was one of three paintings that Gussow exhibited at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions held in the Walker between 1879 and 1881.8| During this period he was based in London and presumably bought the panel on which he painted 'The Oyster Girl' in 1882 from the London-based panel makers Winsor & Newton.9|

Provenance

Acquired by Mr EJ Vaughan, barrister, of Crowborough, East Sussex, who died in or shortly after World War II. 10|  Bequeathed to his daughter, Mrs. O.M. Baker of End House, Horsted Lane, Isfield, Uckfield, East Sussex. Bequeathed to the Art Fund by the late Mrs. O.M. Baker (d.1992) and presented through The Art Fund| to the Walker Art Gallery in July 1996.

Literature

  • K Pietschker, 'Karl Gussow und der Naturalismus', 1898 p.34 repr. p.31
  • Richard Muther, 'History of Modern Painting', III, 1907, p.48
  • Akademie der Kunste und Hochschule der Kunste, Berlin, 'Die Kunst hat nie ein Mensch allein besessen (Art never belonged to only one man)', 1996, cat. no. IV, 4/15, p.321
  • E Morris, '1996 Review', Art Fund, 1997, p.184, no.4387.

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Footnotes

  1. Pauline Rushton, Curator of Costume and Textiles at National Museums Liverpool, identified the dress as typical of mid-European peasant dress.
  2. As translated from Wernher’s statement quoted in the exhibition catalogue entry for the Walker’s 'Old Man’s Treasure (Das Kätzchen)' in 'Die Kunst hat nie ein Mensch allein besessen (Art never belonged to only one man)', Akademie der Kunste und Hochschule der Kunste, Berlin, 1996, cat. no. IV, 4/15, p.321.
  3. The plate was identified by Sue Lunt, Curator of Ceramics at NML, as a type of earthenware, which by the 19th-century, would usually have been made in rural areas for use in country inns and cottages.
  4. Karl Pietscker, 'Karl Gussow und der Naturalismus', 1898 p.34.
  5. See above Wernher’s statement as quoted in 'Die Kunst hat nie ein Mensch allein besessen'.
  6. See 'Grove Dictionary of Art' entries on Klinger and Krohg and Richard Muther, 'History of Modern Painting', III, 1907, p.48.
  7. The Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield own an early Gussow still-life of 'Autumn Flowers' dated 1873 (no. 1366) and signed with an abbreviation WR for Weimar.
  8. In 1879 Gussow exhibited no.65 'The Old Man’s Treasure' £1,000 and no.455 'The Song of the Sea' £420; and in 1881 no.517 'The Old Folks at Home' which was not for sale. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1878 no.1394 'The Fruit Seller' and in 1881 no.916 'The Little Serving Maid'.
  9. Label on the back of the panel: PREPARED PANEL / WINSOR & NEWTON 38 RATHBONE PLACE AND NORTH LONDON COLOUR WORKS, KENTISH TOWN NW.
  10. Information in letter from Mrs OM Baker’s stepson, Simon Baker, 26 November 1996.