I’ve recently been writing about teaching my left hand to work again following my stroke. Because of this, I’ve been thinking very carefully about braiding hair, and knitting socks, about how it felt, and what it meant to re-instruct my hand (whose memory of habitual movement had been completely lost) in those activities. I’ve also been thinking about the hands of Albert Anker.
Anker is an artist much beloved in Switzerland for his depictions of village life, and the 1887 painting (below) of a young girl braiding her hair is one of his most famous works. The braiding is very interesting, of course, but what’s most striking about this painting, I think, is the fact that the girl is doing two things at once: her hands are working while her eyes are reading the book – most likely a devotional work – on the table in front of her. Her mind and hands are occupied.
The busy working hands and minds of girls and women are a major theme of Anker’s oeuvre, but assume a distinctive prominence in the work he completed during the final decade of his life. In 1901, Anker had a stroke which paralysed his right side and affected his working hand. Seated at an easel, his right hand supported on the table next to him, he gradually re-taught his hand to work with watercolours rather than the more laborious oils which were previously his medium. Anker continued his life’s work, and, as his brain-damaged hand grew in strength and learned how paint again, he returned to the subject of women’s working hands again and again. . . and again.
Following his stroke, Anker painted women of all ages . . .
Or, in perhaps my favourite of Anker’s watercolours from 1903, knitting and reading
Teaching my post-stroke hand not just to function but to create again was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was also one of the most rewarding. It has led me to regard the mental and physical processes behind my own working hands, as well as the hands of others, in a completely different light. I wonder if Albert Anker felt similarly.
All of these images, with the exception of the 1887 oil painting (held in the Kunstmuseum in Bern) are watercolours that Anker produced after 1903, which are now in private collections.