The portrait of a black woman by Anton Ažbe (1862–1905), the renowned Slovene painter who had a famous art school in Munich at the turn of the 19th century, is one of the iconic images in Slovene culture, yet it remains enigmatic in several aspects. The sitter is anonymous, although the conception of the picture indicates it is a portrait not just a study work. Even its dating in 1895 has been tentative, resulting from its being exhibited in 1896 in the Munich Glaspalast, which is the earliest piece of information about the painting.
The goal of the present Revelations was to solve the above-mentioned problems. The point of departure was a note by the USA-based Slovene art historian Rajko Ložar (1904–1985), saying that Ažbe's Black Woman portrays “the Negroid wife of the American Consul in Munich” (Slovene Studies 2, No.1, 1980, p. 24).
The question of a more precise dating of the picture was surprisingly answered in the conservation- restoration department of the National Gallery of Slovenia. When the surface of the painting was checked meticulously, another signature was detected underneath the one in cinnabar paint reading Ažbe. With the help of macro photography of this detail, illuminated at a specific angle, the underlying signature (very likely written with the pointed end of a wooden brush handle into the still fresh oil paint) became fairly readable. By means of digital technology a complete reconstruction of the lower-lying inscription was made possible; it is marked in green colour in the enlarged reproduction of this detail. We can discern the signature Achbe 89. It has already been known that in the line below the red-colour signature the word München is written into the layer of paint, while the original signature has all until now evaded detection because of its being obscured by the subsequently added one. We can see that it is spelled with “ch”, the way Ažbe also signed some of his other works (e.g. the drawings Little Girl of Dalmatia, 1885; Bavarian Peasant, 1885; Head of Reclining Old Man, 1887; etc.). The painter obviously added the version spelled with the Slovene “ž”, when he sent the portrait to be displayed in Ljubljana in 1900 at the First Slovene Art Exhibition. Having done so, he concealed not only his original signature but also the date beside it, i.e. 89. The method of infrared photography also shows vestiges of underdrawing on white ground, probably executed in charcoal or black chalk, which means that Ažbe, an excellent draughtsman, had prepared very carefully before he started to apply paint. The fact that the Black Woman – this exemplary painting that hung on a wall of Ažbe’s painting school in Munich as a model for young aspirant artists – proved to be as many as six years older than had been believed earlier, substantiated the statement made by Ažbe’s student Igor Grabar, namely that the portrait was an old academy work of his teacher (Ažbe studied at the Munich academy from 1884 through 1891).
In view of the newly discovered date, the US consul who was to be considered was Edward Windsor Mealey of Hagerstown, Maryland. He served his office in Bavaria between 1887 and 1890, but the enquiries showed that his wife had not been black. Hence, Ložar’s statement must be left unexplained and the Black Woman remains anonymous.
However, the research has given an interesting by-product. In the National Museum of Slovenia a hitherto uncatalogued plaster medallion has been found, featuring Ažbe’s portrait in profile, a work by the Munich sculptor Conrad Holzer from 1907. Like the Black Woman, the medallion, too, was donated to the one-time Province of Carniola by Nicholas von Gutmansthal, who explained that the plaster was a model for a marble portrait to decorate the headstone of Ažbe’s grave in Munich. The deserted grave was rearranged in 2001 and its headstone is now embellished with a bronze relief portrait of the painter made by Mirsad Begić.
Among the memoires related to Ažbe, interest has also been aroused by the note retrospectively written by the painter Rihard Jakopič (1869–1943), stating that he arrived at the Munich academy when Ažbe “was just painting, with his characteristic zeal, a large canvas on commission, whose sketch is now in the National Gallery in Ljubljana”. Jakopič arrived in Munich in the autumn of 1889, and literature reports that around 1890 Ažbe sold a painting entitled Odalisque and a Eunuch to Berlin. It is most reasonable to believe that the National Gallery of Slovenia’s exhibit In a Harem, featuring a subject-matter that is identical to the title of the 1890 painting, is indeed Ažbe’s sketch for his above-mentioned early work. This fact raises doubts about the currently accepted chronology of the painter’s works, according to which In a Harem, due to its very free brushwork (one should keep in mind that it is just a sketch!), was painted in 1903, thus at the very end of Ažbe’s surviving oeuvre. In this case, too, it would be wise to reconsider the dating.
The Black Woman is the only painting by Ažbe that we know he had ever exhibited, although he is reported to have shown his works already as an academy student. Except for works on commission which he was bound to deliver to his clients, in his mature years he never really finished his canvases, begun with his proverbial energy and recalled in the memoirs of a number of his contemporaries. The poet Oton Župančič, who met the painter towards the end of the latter’s life, rightly noted: “I saw master Ažbe in the 'Simplicissimus' tavern /.../ a broken man due to excessive drinking /.../ I feel pity for the chap; he could show something else at exhibitions apart from his Mulatto, beyond which he obviously can reach no more.”