Matej Sternen spent much of 1910 and 1911 in Duino, on the Gulf of Trieste, for the sake of his daughter’s health. While lodging with his family at the Hotel Ples, he painted several views of the coast and the town from the new municipal building, then still unfinished. By 1912 he had settled in Ljubljana, where he moved into the building opposite present-day Mačkova Ulica which the architect Max Fabiani had inserted between Filipov dvorec “Philipp’s Palace”, the imposing commercial and residential building designed by the Graz architect Leopold Theyer for Philipp Schreyer) and the surviving baroque house on the newly renamed Stritarjeva Ulica during the rebuilding of central Ljubljana following the devastating earthquake of 1895. It was in this studio that Sternen painted the series of ambitious nudes that he would exhibit in Jakopič’s Art Pavilion in 1916. Lady by a Mirror was among them.
Sternen was no novice in the genre and had already painted some ambitious nudes at the beginning of the century when he was still a member of Anton Ažbe’s circle in Munich. Redheaded Girl and Youth after Bathingare anthological works of his early period that are, however, connected to his years in the “Athens on the Isar”. In the phase that followed, Sternen dedicated himself almost exclusively to landscape painting. It was not until after 1911 that he succeeded in establishing the nude as an important genre in Slovene art. Even then the mirror was an almost compulsory element of the mise en scène, in that it enabled the artist to offer more complete information about his subjects. Lady by a Mirror is one of the finest works of this period and of Sternen’s oeuvre in general. The almost voyeuristic view captures a woman in an intimate moment, seated in an armchair. In one hand she holds a gold pendant, perhaps a heart-shaped locket containing the image of a loved one.
In this period, Sternen was full of impressions from Paris, where he had seen for himself works by Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and, in particular, Félicien Rops that were well-known to readers of the periodical press of the day. His Parisian impressions are magnificently summarised in the large painting On the Sofa from 1909. These impressions, as well as his familiarity with central European painting, most notably with the works of Lovis Corinth, are also reflected in his studio paintings after 1912. Although Jure Mikuž has somewhat criticised his dependence on Corinth’s poses, Lady by a Mirror is brilliantly executed with broad, energetic brushstrokes and colour contrasts that highlight the problems of lighting. A calm, rhythmic structure of dry, vertical strokes lays the groundwork for the contrasting and energetically improvised brushwork in the modelling of the female figure, a manifestation of innere Erregung (inner excitement).
References: New Acquisitions 2011−2021, National Gallery, Ljubljana 2022