The strikingly monumental painting brings a highly Proustian tone to the tradition of Impressionist portraiture in the style of Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour. The scene takes place in the salon of Louise Breslau’s house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside Paris. It radiates deep ennui and a muted sense of tension. As she often did, the artist has shown herself from the back, revealing only her famous aquiline profile. The letter in her hand and her hair swept back from her high forehead give her an intellectual mien. In the foreground sits her attractive red-haired partner Madeleine Zillhardt, stroking a borzoi. Her turquoise eyes are lost in a laudanum daze. The title, La vie pensive, is to be understood as a reference to both the vita activa and the vita contemplativa.
The light-filled, colour-laden canvas, giving an impression of sensitivity and vigor, is painted with long, swift brush-strokes in a style that evokes the matte fluidity of pastels. On the white tablecloth in the centre of the painting stand a series of elements often found in still lifes, alternating opaque and transparent textures – a bouquet of flowers, a basket of fruit, a carafe and glass, and a porcelain plate. A knife pointing at a peach symbolises the two women’s carnal passion for each other.
Though Louise Breslau was a leading figure in Swiss art circles in Paris, she had to work hard to achieve recognition in her home country. The canvas was only accepted at the ninth national fine art exhibition in Basel in 1908 after the artist complained to the Federal Council about the misogyny of the Association of Swiss Painters and Sculptors, which had once again followed Ferdinand Hodler and voted to reject women the previous year.
Catherine Lepdor (ed.), in collaboration with Anne-Catherine Krüger, Louise Breslau, de l’impressionnisme aux années folles, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Milan, Skira/Seuil, 2001: n. 84.
Anne-Catherine Krüger, Die Malerin Louise Catherine Breslau (1856-1927). Biographie und Werkanalyse. Beschreibender Oeuvrekatalog des Gesamtwerkes, PhD Dissertation, University of Hamburg, 1988: n. 569.