tired of posing

Lisa carefully brushes the cotton bud across the painting of Mata Hari. ‘I left a patch of varnish especially for you,’ she says. ‘You can easily see that this area has been cleaned; the warm veil that covered it has gone. And look at this photo of her face after I’d cleaned half of it. You see how healthy she looks, while she’s so gray on this side.’

What was her condition like when you began, I want to know. ‘Some little scratches, grimy smudges and very discoloured varnish but otherwise not bad.’ I’m with Lisa Elbers in the restoration studio of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo (link 1), where she adds the finishing touches to the restoration of the painting which plays a prominent role during the forthcoming exhibition in the Museum of Friesland.

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Lisa Elbers, atelier Krüller-Müller museum

Mata Hari towers over us. The painting is 2.10 metres tall. Lisa is 1.73, so she sometimes has to use a ladder when working. We wonder how Isaac Israels, a shortish man, managed while he painted Mata Hari. In 1916, Israels, then one of the most famous and best-paid painters in the Netherlands, invited Mata Hari to pose for him. Art collector Helene Kröller-Müller bought the painting and hung it in her sitting room. It was later moved to the museum.

For Mata Hari posing was nothing new. It was her first job after she moved to Paris in search of happiness in 1903. ‘This morning and yesterday I earned my money by posing,’ she wrote in a letter to her cousin Edward MacLeod. ‘It’s difficult, cousin, but there’s no other way. I’m tired of posing, but when I look in my purse I feel better.  

At that time she posed for Octave Guillonnet, a famous French artist. ‘It’s very beautiful,’ confided Margaretha, as she was still known at the time, to Edward. ‘I didn’t realise I looked so good.’ Posing became second nature, certainly after her tumultuous debut as a dancer. All the magazines wanted images of superstar Mata Hari on their covers. If you look at all those photos of her, you’ll see that she was a really good model.

Later in her career, when her dancing skills were no longer in demand, she became a painter’s model again. In 1914, Piet van der Hem, who like her grew up in Leeuwarden and also broke through in Paris, painted some portraits of her. There was gossip that they had a relationship. ‘I really don’t know exactly what Mata Hari meant for him, I find no clues in the paintings,’ said painter Sierk Schröder, the executor of Van der Hem’s estate after he passed away. ‘Piet was a virtuoso artist and Mata Hari was a beautiful woman, but he did not penetrate beyond the surface.’

Henry Rudaux painted her in 1916 as Diana, the goddess of the hunt. The painting was recently auctioned at De Zwaan in Amsterdam. That was the same year that Isaac Israels’ asked her to pose for him. If you place his portrait alongside the last photo of her, taken in the prison in Paris on the day of her arrest, you will see the similarities. A dignified woman, dressed in dark clothing, gazing intensely.

Lisa looks up. ‘I think he made her more beautiful than she really was. If you compare it with that photo: she looks much more plain in that. And looking at it, I’m struck by the absurdity of needing twelve men with guns to kill such a dainty woman.’

I wonder how much she thought about Mata Hari in the 160 hours that she worked on the painting. ‘I thought more about Isaac Israels, how he made this painting. You focus on the image, that’s what it’s about. She was a powerful woman, you can see that. The painting is permanently on show in the Kröller-Müller Museum, the public are fascinated by her, that’s clear from their reactions, and the staff are very attached to her.’

While Lisa and I discuss her work as a restorer, Gill Button in London is busy immersing himself in Mata Hari’s life. Gill is a much sought after British artist, discovered on Instagram by fashion designers like Gucci and Dries van Noten. She paints portraits with ink, with the eyes as the eye-catcher.

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Gill Button displays her work at the Bijenkorf in Amsterdam

The Bijenkorf, a department store in Amsterdam, invited her to exhibit her works. She chose a series of portraits of Mata Hari. ‘What intrigued me most was her turbulent life,’ she says in the het Financieele Dagblad. ‘I studied her face and saw the sadness and pain. I wanted to catch that feeling in the portraits I made of her and her husband and children.’

Gill is very busy. ‘I have to say no to everything,’ she says in the same interview. And she does. I’ve e-mailed her several times. No reply. So off I go to the Bijenkorf. There among the men’s clothing are 33 paintings. They radiate sadness. But we also know this: fortunately, Mata Hari has also had a lot of fun in her life.