The National Gallery recently acquired Evening Gathering in the Palais Fries by the Austrian artist Joseph Fischer. This small-scale aquatint rewards close scrutiny, though not all our questions about it can be readily answered.
In a dark room, a chandelier illuminates a group of well-dressed individuals who are discussing prints and drawings precariously piled on a piano. A seated woman points to a work propped up on an easel, directing our attention to its tiny, suggestive abstraction of squiggled lines. Her brilliantly lit white dress distinguishes her from the men around her, whose clothing is dark. She is the only woman in this nighttime scene. Who and where is she?
This interior setting is most likely a room in an elegant, neoclassical palace that still stands in Vienna today. At the turn of the 19th century, it belonged to Moritz von Fries, an Austrian banker and art collector thought to have owned more than 100,000 prints, 16,000 books, and 300 paintings. Fries was also an important patron of classical music—remember that piano? None other than Ludwig von Beethoven dedicated his Symphony No. 7 and other works to him.
Fries regularly hosted evening get-togethers for enthusiasts of music and art. These devotees tended to be wealthy cosmopolitans with access to education and leisure time. They traveled. They read European journals to keep abreast of the latest cultural developments, which they would discuss with one another. Their libraries were filled with bound volumes and portfolios of prints. Above all, they prided themselves on their judicious tastes. In the cultural sphere, these enthusiasts were a bit like modern-day influencers—though their social networks were of course smaller.
Depicting a woman leading a discussion about art was not the norm. So who is this woman? Fischer provides a clue at the bottom of his print, where he etched the words “d’apres nature par J Fischer 1800.” The French d’après nature means “after nature,” indicating that Fischer witnessed this scene. The woman in white is no imaginary muse, allegory, or symbol. She is a real person whose emphatic gesture underscores her spirited involvement in this discussion. Note, too, how the eyes of the man seated to her right are riveted on her profile. It is tempting to guess further at her identity. Is she an art collector with whom Fischer was attempting to curry favor? Or might she be the artist’s sister, Maria Anna Fischer? She was a talented landscape etcher who occasionally made aquatints, including
We know the names of many who frequented Fries’s soirées, but not that of the woman in the white dress. Something about her seems to have inspired Fischer more than 200 years ago. For me, it is inspiring to see her in the midst of a lively conversation, utterly engaged with art in an era when women were frequently relegated to the background.