A Key Work of European Symbolism: Jan Toorop’s “Hetaera” Added to the Nationalgalerie’s Collection

Alte Nationalgalerie

The painting Hetäre from 1890 is one of the major works by the Dutch artist Jan Toorop from his most important creative period. It is also a key work of European Symbolism. During his lifetime, the artist had his works displayed in exhibitions in the art metropolises of Paris, Brussels and Vienna. Due to his great influence on artists such as Gustav Klimt and Piet Mondrian, Toorop is considered a key figure in fin-de-siècle European art. However, it has always been somewhat of a rare occurrence to find works – especially oil paintings – by Toorop in German collections. The acquisition of this important painting – whose provenance and exhibition history are fully documented – therefore adds a major, international perspective to the representation of Modernism in the Nationalgalerie’s collection. It can now be seen in the Alte Nationalgalerie’s Symbolism Room (R. 1.15), where it will be on permanent display along with works by Max Klinger, Ludwig von Hofmann, Franz von Stuck, Georg Minne and Giorgio de Chirico.

The painting Hetaera is one of Toorop’s earliest Symbolist works from the 1890s. It was with these paintings that the artist formulated an important vision within this art movement and became stylistically influential. The painting style is free, dynamic and characterised by an original use of colour. The depiction, centred on a fantastical female figure, defies easy interpretation. The title is a reference to the courtesans of antiquity. However, the painting is also sometimes referred to as Venus of the Sea and Woman from the Sea.

Jan Toorop (1858–1928) was born in Purworejo on the island of Java in what was then the Dutch Indies (and is now Indonesia). His Dutch father and British mother were both from the Dutch colony. At the age of 10, Toorop came to the Netherlands, where in 1880 he began his studies at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. Two years later he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. There, Toorop joined the Société des Vingt, a group of progressive artists.

“Especially when it comes to his works from the same period as Hetaera, Toorop seems to have incorporated influences from Javanese culture. In a similar way to the works of Paul Gauguin, the painting provides a phenomenal example of the intertwining of European Modernism with non-European cultures. It adds to the Nationalgalerie’s collection a more nuanced understanding of what we now call ‘European’ Modernism.”

Ralph Gleis, Director of the Alte Nationalgalerie

The painting was acquired with funding from the estate of Manfred Thamke, Berlin and with the support of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung.