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Born Maria Luise Katharina Breslau in Munich, Germany, she spent her childhood in Zurich, Switzerland and as an adult made Paris, France her home. Suffering from asthma all her life, Louise turned to drawing as a child to help pass the time while confined to her bed. Although she became one of the most sought after portraitists of her time, after her death she and her work were all but forgotten. It has only been in the past few years that interest in Louise Breslau and her works has been growing.
Louise was born into a prosperous bourgeois family; her father was a well-respected physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. When Louise was two years old, her father accepted the position of professor and head physician of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Zurich; Switzerland became home to the Breslau family. Tragedy hit in December 1866 when Dr. Breslau died suddenly from a staph infection contracted while performing a post-mortem examination.
After her father’s death, Louise was sent to a convent near Lake Constance in hopes of alleviating her chronic asthma. It is believed that during her long stays at the convent her artistic talents were awoken. In the late 19th century young bourgeois ladies were expected to be educated in the domestic arts including drawing and playing the piano. These were admirable attributes for a respectable wife and mother. Pursuing a career was quite unusual and often prohibited.
By 1874, after having taken drawing lessons from a local Swiss artist, Eduard Pfyffer (1836-1899), Louise knew that she would have to leave Switzerland if she wanted to realize her dream of seriously studying art. One of the few places available for young women to study was at the Académie Julian in Paris.
At the Académie, Breslau soon gained the attention of its highly regarded instructors and the jealousy of some of her classmates including the Russian, Marie Bashkirtseff. In 1879, with a portrait Tout passé, Louise was the only student from the Académie Julian women’s atelier to debut at the Paris Salon. Tout passé was a self -portrait that included her two friends.
Shortly afterwards Breslau had changed her name to Louise Catherine, opened her own atelier, and was becoming a regular contributor and medal winner at the annual Salon. Due to her success at the Salon and favorable notice from the critics, Louise received numerous commissions from wealthy Parisians. She eventually became the third woman, and the first foreign woman to be bestowed France’s Legion of Honor award.
Over the years, Louise became a well-regarded colleague to some of the day’s most popular artists and writers including Edgar Degas and Anatole France. One person who was very special in Louise’s life was Madeleine Zillhardt with whom she spent over forty years. Madeleine, a fellow student at the Académie Julian, became Louise’s muse, model, confidant, and supporter.
During World War I, Breslau and Zillhardt remained at their home outside Paris. Although she had been a naturalized Swiss citizen for many years, Louise showed her loyalty for the French by drawing numerous portraits of French soldiers and nurses on their way to the Front. After the war, Breslau retired from the public and spent much of her time painting flowers from her garden and entertaining friends.
In 1927 Louise Breslau died after a long illness. According to her wishes, Zillhardt inherited much of Louise’s estate. Louise Breslau was buried next to her mother in the small town of Baden, Canton Aargau, Switzerland.
Krüger, Anne-Catherine. Die Malerin Louise Catherine Breslau 1856-1927. Diss. U. Hamburg, 1988. Biographie u. Werkanalyse zur Erlangung der Würde des Doktors der Philosophie der Universität Hamburg. Hamburg, 1988.
Weisberg, Gabriel P and Jane R. Becker, editors. Overcoming All Obstacles. The Women of the Académie Julian. The Dahesh Museum, New York, New York and Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1999.
Zillhardt, Madeleine. Louise Breslau und Ihre Freunde. Editions des Portiques 1932. In's Deutsche übertragen von Ernst v. Bressensdorf. Starnberg, 1979.
E. Hovelaque in Gazette des Beaux-Arts’ Mademoiselle Louise Breslau, September 1905 (illustrated P. 201)
R. de Montesquiou in Art et Décoration ‘Un maître femme, Mademoiselle Breslau’, 1911 (illustrated p.141)