ALBERT ANKER (1831-1910) 

During his lifetime the painter, Anker, who is currently the subject of an exhibition in Martigny, was much admired and bemedalled. His father who was a vetinerary surgeon in Neuchatel came from Ins between the lakes of Neuchatel and Bienne, not far from where the Celtic treasure was found which gave its name to the La Tene culture and close to the linguistic boundary between French and German. When Anker wrote in French he called himself Albert, while in German he signed himself Albrecht. He was sixteen at the time of the Sonderbund when the Catholic cantons, including neighbouring Fribourg, rebelled against the Protestant hegemony. That year was a sombre one; his mother and brother died. His sister also died young leaving him the only child. He began theological studies, but at the age of twenty-three he persuaded his father to let him try his chance as an artist. He went to Paris, then the art centre of the world, and studied under the Vaudois, Charles Gleyre. Afterwards he settled into a routine of living, working and exhibiting in Paris, some travel and summers spent in the family house in Ins. He married a woman who, having been at school with his sister, had subsequently worked some years in Russia. They had six children. Two boys died young. He was a member of the Gottfried Keller Art Foundation and from 1870-74 a member of the Grand Council of the Canton of Berne. He retired to Ins and died there. An uneventful life typical of his time and background notable only in his artistic success. He differed from the more innovative contemporary Swiss artists Bocklin (1827-1901) and Hodler (1853-1918) whose work has found a more international appeal.

Anker's paintings remain popular with a wide public in Switzerland. Examples are to be seen in public galleries. The largest private collection belongs to the populist right-wing politician, Christopher Blocher. They are meticulously painted, the subject matter easy to grasp and in a tradition going back to Holland in the seventeenth century. The fijnschilder school of Leiden founded by Rembrandt's pupil Dou lasted until the nineteenth century. It is distinguished by paintings which are never large, with a perfectly smooth surface and great attention to detail. In Anker's paintings we can see the fine hairs around the face of his blonde heads. In subject matter we have the old men and women familiar from Rembrandt; women reading or spinning were a popular subject with his followers. Anker's scenes show one or two country people with neither the harsh realism of poverty of the Nain brothers nor the irreality of Boucher's pretty pastorals.
Anker's birthplace built by his grandfather in 1803

Instead of the formal child portrait Anker presents (with reminiscences of Chardin and sometimes Manet) children knitting, going to school, reading and doing their homework or together with their grandparents. Anker also painted the new civil society; The Meeting of the Communal Administration, The Marriage Contract, A Creche (for children of the poor working class in the city of Berne).

1879 Friendship,
Cymbalista Collection

1890 (Detail)
Oskar Reinhardt Foundation, Winterthur

Anker, as was seventeenth century Holland, is impregnated with the Protestant ethic; a eulogy of the simple, respect for humble folk and for work, the importance of education and family life. His paintings are static. He stops the flow of daily life and suspends ordinary moments, conserving them with the gift of significance. The effect comes from simple composition, restricted colours and the intensity of the expressions on the faces. In the interiors one can hear the loud ticking of the clock on the wall. He is not immune from sentimentality. While he observes that a third of the children going on a school outing are barefoot, or his boy on the way to school clutching his slate wears a much patched and still ragged jacket of coarse cloth and looks as if he would like to escape, his children are all unnaturally clean and glowing with health, their skin unblemished. In the exhibition are two exceptions to this 'all is well in this best possible of all worlds' view. There are two pictures of convalescents which wonderfully capture the lassitude of someone after a long spell in bed. Only in one picture is the pessimism complete. A poor man sitting at a table with a glass of white wine, again totally in tune with the times and the warnings of alcohol as the ruin of the labouring classes.
1887 Private collection

Like Dickens in words created an image of life which Victorian Britain adopted as reflecting the sort of nation it wanted to be, so Anker helped build an idea of Switzerland that the young state created after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire approved. During the effort to heal the divisions revealed by the Sonderbund and to cope with growing industrialization this idealism of country life was a congenial message.

1876 Solothurn Museum

c.1877 Winthertur                  
10th February 2004