Emma Couperus (1885-1979) studied at the Minerva Academy in Groningen (BA with honors 1912). Despite excelling in her studies, independent success as an artist was elusive. Critics described her works as “an affected kind of impressionism” and deemed it derivative. She soon abandoned her hopes of becoming an independent painter. She was born into a well-to-do family, but found it beneath her proud to seek support from her parents. She also deliberately remained unmarried in order to retain the newly acquired liberties of her time. All in all, it is hardly surprising that she sought refuge in the financial opportunities of ‘applied painting’.
The early 1900’s saw the commercialisation of portrait photography. Many portrait photographers flourished, having large studios which bore little relation to their talent, for the work required little. A typical portrait paired the subject with props such as a sheepskin blanket or a decorated column. A certain ‘atmosphere’ and ‘class’ was provided using painted backgrounds. Couperus resorted to providing this ambience as her means of support. Her impressionistic works made way for large, roll-out landscapes and interiors. Drawing inspiration, and on occasion merely copying from books about Egyptian and Roman culture, the product sold easily and she established her niche in this sector, becoming a sought-after figure.
From the outset, she made a sole request from her clients – a single copy of a portrait featuring one of her backgrounds. Her reasons were unclear, perhaps simply for archival purposes. However, in letters to her sister her distaste was obvious. She describes them as “photographs lacking fantasy, lacking life.” Considering her contribution besmirched, she found satisfaction in excising the figures from the photos. Her estate yielded a solitary intact portrait, one in which she herself was the subject.
Emma Couperus in front of one of her paintings (around 1925).