This year marks a hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of the birth of painter and illustrator Gvidon Birolla. He was one of the founding members of the artists’ club Vesna in which Slovene and Croatian secondary-school and university students were joined. It was actually operative in Vienna since the year 1902 but was formally established on 9 May 1903. Together with other Vesna members, the twenty-three years old Birolla already participated in the First Yougoslav Art Exhibition that was organized in Belgrade in 1904.
In 1906 Birolla completed his studies at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in the class of Professor Christian Griepenkerl (1836−1916) and then returned home. He was active as an artist in Škofja Loka and painted in the town itself and in the surrounding areas. After his brother’s death in 1917 he decided to take responsibility for the managing of the family business – the lime kiln at Zagorje ob Savi and later at Kresnice – and gave up painting. He only returned to artistic activity in the late 1930s; he kept to the idiom of his early career, mainly modifying the images that had impressed him profoundly in his youth until the end of his life.
The National Gallery of Slovenia houses 149 drawings and watercolours as well as 16 oil paintings by Gvidon Birolla. Four of the latter are portraits: Portrait of a Nun (dated 1900), Ivan Grohar, Feliks Birolla and Antonija Birolla. Feliks and Antonija Birolla were the painter’s parents, while Ivan Grohar (1867−1911), a Slovene Impressionist painter, liked to visit Birolla’s studio in Škofja Loka, and the works of the two artists evidence that they painted together in the surroundings of this town.
In addition to artworks by Gvidon Birolla the National Gallery of Slovenia also keeps part of the painter’s personal archive. Among the documents there are also two full-length female portraits: a photo portrait (albumen photograph, 9.2 x 5.7 cm) from the photographic studio of Ed. Lichtenstern in Trieste and a Lady in a Violet Dress, at first recognized as a gouache miniature. As concerns the latter, it has been established recently by Tina Buh, the National Gallery’s conservator-restorer, that the Lady in a Violet Dress is in fact a hand-coloured photo portrait (8.6 x 5.7 cm) and that Birolla cropped a copy of the photograph from Lichtenstern’s Trieste photo studio and heavily overpainted it. Last year, with the help of the painter’s relatives still alive, we managed to identify the depicted lady as Antonija Birolla (née Šink), the painter’s mother. According to a painter’s kinswoman now deceased, the violet dress Antonija wears in the picture, still existed in 2003 but was discarded about ten years ago due to decrepitude.
In the oil portrait of his mother Birolla retained her posture as can be seen in the portrait photograph. However, the painter changed the colour of the dress, otherwise of the same cut, to blue and transferred the sitter from the photo studio into the room of his Škofja Loka apartment: instead on the little neo-baroque table with double-volute legs from the Trieste studio, her right arm rests on a discretely decorated chest of drawers with neo-baroque base, on which a precious pendulum table clock stands, and a chest-length portrait of her husband – painter’s father – is hung on the wall above the chest of drawers; through a window in front of which the lady is set a view opens over Škofja Loka, past the Ursuline church to the castle.
Gvidon Birolla presented his mother in the domestic environment, in her native town of Škofja Loka. He did likewise in the portrait of his father. Fortunat, or Feliks, Birolla was half- Italian, half-Croat by birth, his native town was Pazin in the Istria. The painter must have relied on a photograph when he was painting the portrait because his father had died as early as 1884, when Gvidon had only three years. The sitter is set in an open stone built porch grown with vine bearing ripe grapes; far in the background a compact town of stone houses is seen on a hill, presumably Pazin, the father’s birthplace. Father’s facial features in this full-length oil portrait – it is the same size as mother’s portrait, 30.0 x 29.5 cm – are identical to those in his chest-length portrait, figuring as a painting within a painting in the artist’s full-length portrait of Antonija Birolla, where it is shown as hanging above the chest of drawers in the background.