Lisiewska, Anna (1721–1782)

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Lisiewska, Anna (1721–1782)

German artist. Name variations: Liscewska; Lisziewska; Anna Dorothea Lisiewska-Therbusch. Born Anna Dorothea Lisiewska in Berlin, Germany, on July 23, 1721; died in Berlin in 1782; daughter of George Lisiewski or Lisziewski, a Polish painter who may have been her first teacher; sister of Rosina Lisiewska (1716–1783); married Ernst Therbusch (an innkeeper and artist), in 1745; several children.

Born in 1721 in Berlin, Germany, into a Polish family of artists, Anna Lisiewska probably received her early instruction from her father and may have also studied with Antoine Pesne (1683–1757), whose rough impasto and loose brushwork is visible in her later style. Her early works, however, including a pair of canvases, The Swing and A Game of Shuttlecock (both located at the Neues Palais, Potsdam), are more indicative of the French Rococo style of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) and his followers. In 1745, at age 24, Lisiewska married an innkeeper and painter, Ernst Therbusch, after which she gave up her professional career for some 15 years to raise a family. It is believed that she may not have avoided painting entirely during this hiatus, for when she returned to her public career in 1761, her work showed considerable improvement in drawing and composition. Between 1761 and 1764, Lisiewska was commissioned by the courts of Duke Charles Eugene in Stuttgart and Elector Karl Theodor in Mannheim.

In 1765, encouraged by her success with German royalty, Lisiewska moved to Paris, believing that she would be as warmly welcomed into the city's prestigious cultural circles as Rosalba Carriera was in 1720. However, Lisiewska, now 40, possessed neither the beauty nor social grace of her predecessor, and she had difficulty ingratiating herself with the artistic community. The French philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713–1784), who befriended the artist and did his best to advance her career, later explained why:

It was not charm that she lacked in order to create a great sensation in the country, for she had that in any case, it was youth, beauty, modesty, coquetry, one must go into ecstasies over the works of our great male artists, take lessons from them, have a good bosom and buttocks, and succumb entirely to one's teachers.

On the basis of her talent alone, Lisiewska was elected to the academy in 1767 and exhibited a number of paintings in that year's Salon. Her genre painting, The Drinker (located at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris), depicting the figure of a man seen by candlelight, received good reviews. One critic thought it "excellent," while another noted its "lively effect, good chiaroscuro." Diderot, who like his fellow Parisians enjoyed more idealized treatments, found it "empty and dry, hard and red," and felt that the effect of candlelight lacked subtlety. He also found much of Lisiewska's subsequent work not to his liking, including her large mythological painting depicting Jupiter and Antiope, which the academy refused to hang. Although the official reason given was that it was indecent, there were also questions concerning its quality. Diderot thought it too realistic in style and objected to her plebeian models. "If I was Jupiter, I would have regretted going to the trouble of metamorphosing myself," he declared.

Diderot, who deeply admired Lisiewska's ambition and determination, if not always her work, continued to support her, finding her patrons and advising her on the politics of Parisian art. He bought her painting Cleopatra and even commissioned her to render his portrait. During the sitting, when he noticed she was having difficulty with his neck and nether regions, he obliged her by undressing. "I was nude, but completely nude," he wrote. "She painted me and we chatted with a simplicity and innocence worthy of earlier times." However, even Diderot eventually lost patience with Lisiewska, who blamed him for her failure to obtain commissions from the court of Louis XV and left him to pay off her creditors when she hastily departed to the Netherlands in 1768. By 1771, she was back in Berlin, where she remained for the rest of her life, mainly painting portraits. She later gained acceptance into the Bologna and Vienna academies, the latter of which granted her membership in 1776 on the strength of her portrayal of landscape painter Phillip Hackert (1737–1805).

Ann Harris and Linda Nochlin regard Lisiewska's work as uneven, but point to a few powerful portraits and genre pictures as outstanding. Among the latter is An Evening Meal by Candlelight (Puschkin-Museum, Moscow), depicting a young couple dining under the scrutiny of a young soldier, which Harris and Nochlin praise for capturing the intimacy of the scene without resorting to sentimentality. "The treatment of the light as it falls on the three figures and the various objects on the table is also wonderfully realized," they add. Many of Lisiewska's portraits are frank in their portrayals, some to the point of being unflattering. Her Self-Portrait (c. 1780) is a prime example, depicting Lisiewska as a plain woman in her late 50s. "The artist arouses our interest because she did not fit into the acceptable stereotype of the well-educated, well-spoken lady artist of beauty and charm," writes Harris and Nochlin, "and thus her career was not so easy as those of Sofonisba Anguissola and Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun , for example."

Lisiewska's sister Rosina Lisiewska was also a painter. Their brother's daughters, Julie Lisiewska (1767–1837) and Frederica Julia Lisiewska (b. 1772), also became artists.


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Woman Artists, 1550–1950. LA County Museum of Art: Knopf, 1976.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Lisiewska, Anna (1721–1782)

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