Portrait of Irmgard Menning (Maiden in White)

Portrait of Irmgard Menning (Maiden in White)

1915–1916Oil on canvas88.7 × 76.4 cmArt Museum of Estonia

The painting portrays Irmgard von Voigtländer, who was born in central Germany in 1886. She moved to Estonia ten years before the portrait was painted and married the theatre director Karl Menning. Irmgard von Voigtländer has been called a “young noblewoman” although more precisely she was a member of the wealthy middle class.

There is scant little information about Irmgard von Voigtländer. She was one of six children (one of whom died in infancy). Her younger sister became a famous violinist (she performed in Tartu in 1922) and the first female professor of the violin in Germany. Irmgard herself became interested in theatre, and against the preferences of her parents started studying directing under the theatrical innovator Max Reinhardt early in the 1900s. It was there that she reportedly met Karl Menning, suggesting she was not studying to become an actor but a director.

The two arrived in Estonia, Menning became the first theatre director of the Vanemuine and their first son was born in 1907, followed four years later by another, and a third in 1915. Although she was trained as an avant-garde director, she became a home-maker in Estonia and retired from professional life – her only contribution to Estonian theatre history was donations of costumes to Vanemuine actors. Contemporaries remember her as a “deep brunette with a faint upper lip shadow, beautiful and elegant, a very different type from Estonians”[1]. She mastered Estonian quickly to the point where she spoke it without an accent, and was said not to have socialized with Baltic Germans but only with Estonians.

It was probably because of her darker, decidedly non-Estonian appearance that Irmgard Menning became one of most often portrayed women in early 20th century Estonian paintings: besides the Mägi portrait, she sat for two large-scale portraits by Nikolai Triik (1910 and 1916), of which the second one hung in the Mennings’ living room. In all these works, Irmgard Menning’s appearance was emphasized: her exotic, foreign features, elegant comportment and clothing. Fashion historian Anu Ojavee says that indeed, theatre and art circles took a more creative approach to matters of attire than did the more conservative middle class, and imitated the “artsy” metropolitan sartorial style inspired by controversial Russian ballet performances. Although this was a talented, independent-minded woman with interests in the avant-garde, it is her non-Estonian appearance and bearing that rendered her such a wondrous being in the Triik and Mägi portraits, and not her artistic interests that she was unfortunately unable to realize.

[1] See E. Parek, “Mälestusi ja mõtisklusi K. Menningust,” Keel ja Kirjandus, no. 8/1969.