In December 1880 the 25-year-old Jurij Šubic left Athens for Paris at the invitation of the Czech painter Vojtěch Hynais, a friend from his student days in Vienna. Overwhelmed by private and public commissions from Prague and preoccupied in particular with designs for the painted decoration of the city’s newly built National Theatre, Hynais hoped that Šubic could help him with his work.
This painting of Mary Magdalene is, despite its fragmentary nature, an artistically attractive whole. The picture shows a female figure lying on her side. The upper part of her torso, from the small of the back to the elbows, is drawn schematically with the brush. The background is indistinct but the head, tilted towards the viewer and framed by tumbling hair, seems complete, despite the rapid yet skilful brushstrokes. The painting was included in an exhibition of works by the Šubic brothers at the National Gallery in 1937, where it was given the title Study of a Head with Curls for the Magdalene. Although the figure’s luxuriant red curls suggest the penitent Mary Magdalene, the subject of the work could be another, perhaps influenced by the ideal of beauty characteristic of the Venetian baroque. Where, then, does the title come from?
Hynais’s close collaborator Šubic was copying – or perhaps even initiated – an image that the Czech artist completed in 1882, with an atmosphere that recalls the works of the Old Masters. In Hynais’s painting, a full-length female figure is depicted in a landscape with a skull and a book – familiar attributes of the penitent Magdalene – but the emphatic sensuality of the curve of the back and the gleaming curls reveal that this is not a devotional painting. Four years later, he painted a replica for a family friend, the physician Emile Waltat, which he inscribed in the bottom right-hand corner with the following words: “A mon cher ami Emile Waltat, V Hynais, 21 mai 1886.”
The narrow face with full lips and dainty chin, the copper-red hair tumbling over the shoulders, and the thick curls framing the face reveal the identity of the subject of the painting: she is the circus acrobat and popular model Suzanne Valadon, who later established herself as a painter in her own right and was the first woman to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She was also the mother of the painter Maurice Utrillo. Valadon also posed for Hynais for his depiction of the genius of Fame for the main stage curtain of the National Theatre in Prague, on which several of the painter’s friends and colleagues are depicted, among them Jurij Šubic.
In 1908 a reproduction of Hynais’s painting, engraved for printing by Jurij Šubic, appeared in the newspaper Slovan.
References: New Acquisitions 2011−2021, National Gallery, Ljubljana 2022