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 Herminia Borchard Dassel  (1821 - 1857)

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Lived/Active: New York / Russian Federation/Germany      Known for: genre, figure-Indian, portrait

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Herminia Dassel was born in Germany at an unknown date and achieved success in America with paintings of literary subjects, genre scenes, and portraits. Her father was a wealthy banker in Konigsberg, Prussia, and as a child, servants, teachers, horse-drawn carriages, and all the trappings of European upper class society surrounded Herminia Borchard. When her father was bankrupted in the crash of 1839, and left with only a small farm, she was forced to help her older brothers and sisters with the chores.

Herminia decided to become a professional painter. She would attend to her household duties in the morning, and then, with portfolio in hand, wander off over the dusty or muddy road to the city, and again returned to attend to the flowers and cabbages, and the making of cheese and butter. Her early education undoubtedly included drawing lessons, and she quickly secured a commission to paint a full-sized portrait of a local clergyman. "This she painted in the church with her model on the altar," while the country folk gawked with amazement.

An exhibition of painter Carl Sohns work inspired her to go to Dusseldorf to study with him for four years, supporting herself with the sale of paintings of peasant life. Dusseldorf was at that time the center of the school of anecdotal and historical painting, which also attracted American artists like Emanuel Leutze, the painter of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851).

After returning to Konigsberg, Borchard reportedly managed to save a thousand dollars by painting portraits, and set off on a tour of Italy, escorted by her brother. A somewhat sensational account of her journey describes the bold-spirited artist picking up models in the streets of Vienna and bringing them to her room to pose, a rather daring activity for a woman of her day.

She was studying in Italy when the Italian Revolution of 1848 broke out. Although her brother returned to Germany, she decided to immigrate to the United States, against the pleas of family and friends who begged her not to expose herself to the hazards of a sea voyage and an unknown country. She arrived in America in 1849, with a letter of introduction to "Mr. Hagedorn," a Philadelphia art patron and began immediately to exhibit scenes of Italian peasant life in the American Art-Union in New York and at the National Academy.

Borchard was apparently very personable and able to make her way easily in foreign countries. Five months after her arrival in America, she married a Mr. Dassel, and despite "the cares and sorrows incidental to the care of a family, and to an arduous profession," she continued a successful career. Exhibiting steadily, she painted portraits of wealthy New Yorkers, their children, literary subjects such as Othello, and as well as her genre paintings.

Instead of painting Italian peasants, however, Herminia Dassel switched to Americas exotic "peasants", the Indians. Along with artists like George Catlin and Alfred Jacob Miller, she responded to the publics fascination in this period with the romance of the noble, but tragic, Native American. She visited Nantucket in 1851 and painted Abram Quary, the Last Indian on Nantucket Island (1851). He is shown seated in his small hut, tame and barefoot, in conventional clothing, with a basket of newly gathered herbs at his feet. His civilized shoes are placed to one side on the floor, suggesting that they hurt his feet. Through the window, the white mans sailing ships and buildings can be seen in the harbor. Dassels portrait of a dark eyed Nantucket Indian Princess is another sympathetic portrayal.

During her visits to Nantucket, Dassel also painted a portrait of Maria Mitchell, Americas famous woman astronomer, gazing through her telescope, and another composition showing Mitchells sister, Kate, assisting their father with his celestial observations (1851).

Dassels work was typical of the industrious genre painters who were very successful in the middle of the nineteenth century, before photography overwhelmed the field of image-making, and before collectors began to turn away from domestic American art, and go to Paris and Italy for their purchases.

(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, "American Women Artists", by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein.)

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