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Portrait of a Woman

Konrad Mägi Portrait of a Woman 1922–1924 oil, canvas 68.7 × 55.6 cm

Konrad Mägi has gone down in the history of Estonian art first and foremost as a landscape painter. Nevertheless, portraits form a significant part of his creative work. He painted portraits throughout his career as an artist. It is speculated that Mägi’s inclination to portrait art was not due so much to the inner urge of the artist as to the profitability of that work, since the people who commissioned portraits were quite wealthy as a rule.


At the same time, we do not so much see a specific person in Mägi’s portraits as the artist’s ideal of beauty – his portraits are painted relatively similarly to each other: the background is modest and renders the depicted subject prominent. Mägi prefers the three-quarter figure instead of the face or the full figure. Clothing and the rest of what surrounds the model is pronouncedly stylised and it approaches decorativeness. Mägi particularly emphasises the face, which also gives the model a shade of sensuality. Hanno Kompus, one of the best experts in Mägi’s creative work, wrote in 1916: “Mägi opens up an altogether particular world for us in his portraits. He lets us surmise unknown, mysterious forces that operate in the dimness of man’s soul from the beginning, frightening and enticing him to commit crimes, forcing and ruling like the master of a slave, and nevertheless also giving us ecstasies as a gift, beside which the “reasonable” pleasures of “common sense” are like the yawn of boredom.”

Her gaze is turned away. She does not look at us, we do not interest her. Delicate, light-coloured Konrad Mägi-like fingers, so impractical for doing work, are raised to the hems of her fur coat. The hems are sumptuous and elegant, as is her hat and probably like the dress that is visible between the hems of the fur coat. Mägi liked foreign and exotic types of people as much as he liked luxurious clothing, jewellery and accessories. Perhaps there was a thirst in this for colour, perhaps a yearning to see objects in his paintings that had no practical value and were meant only to satisfy our thirst for beauty. We do not know much about the model of this painting, it is suggested that the model might have been the wife of a wealthy Tartu bookseller and publisher or perhaps someone from Mägi’s extensive circle of acquaintances.

There is also something Madonna-like in this woman with pale skin, an averted glance and an enigmatic facial expression, all of which Mägi emphasises even more with his decision to aim light at her from an unidentified source. While the entire painting is almost entirely muted and unaccustomedly under the sway of dark colours, Mägi has bathed the picture’s emotional core – the model’s face – in light that appears to come just as much from outside the model as from inside her. As a lifelong bachelor, Mägi did not paint women erotically. More than sexuality or psychology, he is interested in their Otherness: something that as a man, Mägi claimed to never completely understand.