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19 May 2021

The aqueous scenes of Julia Beck

How the Swedish painter found her true home by the rivers around Paris.

By Michael Prodger

People almost never feature in the landscapes of Julia Beck yet she was the most social of artists. For much of her career she was surrounded by friends and fellow painters and lived in a world of art chatter, but when she had a canvas and a slice of French riverbank in front of her she shut out the noise and painted just silence and solitude.

Beck (1853-1935) was born in Stockholm, where her German immigrant father and Swedish mother ran a bookbinding ­business. When she was old enough, she helped out in the shop and gained a taste for calligraphy, which was to become a remunerative part of her artistic career – penning diplomas and certificates. Her craft upbringing was one reason her parents supported her in her wish to become a painter. 

In 1872 Beck enrolled as a student at the Konstakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts), which not only offered a free five-year course, but was one of the earliest European academies to accept female students (from 1864). The Royal Academy Schools in London did admit Laura Herford in 1860, but only because she signed her submission drawing with her initials and was mistakenly thought to be a man; the French École des Beaux-Arts did not accept women until 1897. Sweden’s female students, the “painter-girls”, had the same teachers as the men and mingled freely with their male peers, but they took their classes in a different part of the academy.

Beck quickly became one of the dominant figures of the ladies’ section and was instrumental in founding a student newspaper, Palettskrap (“Palette Scratch”), which published poetry, art world news, tittle-tattle and cartoons (some of which were the work of Carl Larsson, who would become one of the most eminent Swedish painters of the day). Along with many of the students, Beck was disenchanted with the prevailing syllabus, which taught a Germanic, brown-hued realism, and was more interested in French art. She helped organise like-minded peers into a free-roving artists’ colony that would decamp to the countryside outside Stockholm to paint directly from nature.

Shortly after finishing at the academy, Beck left for Paris, where she enrolled in the private Académie Julian, which was international and espoused a less conservative art than the official schools. She later continued her training with the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, who specialised in pictures of modern and modish women: Beck herself was one such woman. She shared a studio with a group of other Scandinavian female artists and found early success as a portraitist, exhibiting at the Salon showcase for the first time in 1880. As an advocate of female painters she was also a regular exhibitor at the women-only Salon de l’Union des femmes peintres et sculpteurs.

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[see also: Why David Hockney’s Piccadilly Circus is a great piece of public art]

Beck’s arrival in Paris coincided with the early years of the impressionists. Their eight group exhibitions, which spanned 1874 to 1886, were influential if not critically successful, and Beck added their example to the more traditionally naturalistic way of painting landscape practised by the Barbizon school of artists. She tested herself at Grez-sur-Loing, a village-turned-artists’ colony near Fontainebleau, south of Paris (the impressionist Alfred Sisley painted at Moret-sur-Loing, just along the river).

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Grez was particularly popular with Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon artists and in the late 19th century more than 100 of them spent time there. They were attracted by the watery landscape, the freedom they were afforded, the lack of distinction between male and female painters and the presence of writers such as August Strindberg, who was there at the same time as Beck, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who had frequented the area a few years earlier.

In Across the Plains (1892) Stevenson described the village:

Grez is a merry place after its kind: pretty to see, merry to inhabit. The course of its pellucid river, whether up or down, is full of gentle attractions for the navigator: islanded reed-mazes where, in autumn, the red berries cluster; the mirrored and inverted images of trees; lilies, and mills, and the foam and thunder of weirs.

This is exactly what Beck painted in numerous aqueous scenes of the 1880s, such as this, River Landscape, Grez-sur-Loing, of 1882. As a stretch of river it is honest but entirely unremarkable, exactly the sort of spot she would have found on her strolls from the village. Trees just on the autumnal turn fill one half of the picture, sky the other, and the river that leads the eye effortlessly through the picture is a mirror as well as a recessional tool. The foreground reeds have a calligraphic flourish, as do her name and date so stylishly signed with a practised hand. The detail of the picture is too fine and the level of finish too high for it to have been painted entirely out of doors, but the freshness of those hours on the riverbank is all there. It’s a tone poem that evokes mood – solitude, calm, a touch of melancholy perhaps.

In 1888 Beck bought a house at Vaucresson, four miles from the Seine west of Paris, which was to be her home for the rest of her life. Claude Monet had purchased his own watery domain at Giverny, further down the Seine, just five years earlier. Although Beck travelled frequently, to Belgium and back to Sweden, she had turned French. When later asked why she didn’t move back to Stockholm, she gave a painter’s answer: “In Sweden I could never learn to paint the sun – it is so hard to see, the air is clear, oui, but in Normandy the atmosphere is misty and there I could see the sun glittering in the haze and on the sea.”

It was France that appreciated her in return. Although her native country wouldn’t allow her to exhibit in the Swedish Pavilion, at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, the French esteemed her work, and in 1934, the year before her death, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. The fact she never married allowed her to concentrate fully on painting, whereas many of her “painter-girl” friends had to sacrifice their art to circumstance. But the determination she had shown as a student in Stockholm was no youthful enthusiasm; Beck had followed through. 

[see also: The quiet landscape of Giorgio Morandi]

This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy