About Anna Agnes Witsen

Anna Agnes Witsen was born on February 3rd, 1855 in Amsterdam. She was the daughter of merchant in iron Jonas Jan Witsen. The family existed of nine children of which three died at a very young age. Anna’s mother died in 1873 when Anna was 18, her sister Cobi 22 and the brothers Johan, Karel, Hendrik and Willem respectively 24, 17, 16, and 13. Karel died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. After all this misery the wealthy family Witsen moved from the smelly city of Amsterdam to their country house Ewijkshoeve near Baarn around 1881.

Ink on paper

Anna had a dream. Just like her brother painter Willem Witsen she felt the urge to express herself in a creative way. She wanted to be a professional soprano singer. Her father initially encouraged her musical development, but then forbade her to carry out the profession on a professional basis. Yet that seemed to be her main goal in life. 

The late-nineteenth-century dogmatic ideas about the position of women and how she had to fulfill that role meant for a woman of Anna’s position that she should not be a professional soprano vocalist. And although the Tachtigers resisted the old-fashioned, bourgeois ideas with a tooth and nail, there was no one who jumped for the gap for Anna. She was expected to fulfill her duties indoors and show modesty, passivity and restraint. Characteristics that do not seem to match with the impetuous character structure of Anna Agnes Witsen.

It seems that the Witsen family members had a melancholic character. Perhaps not surprising after all they have experienced. The death of children and the loss of a mother at a young age… Anna got depressed. Not only she was not allowed to do what she loved the most, singing professionally, she also suffered from unrequited love.

+/- 26 year old, photographer unknown, colorized by Jitske Schols

Anna had a crush on Julius Röntgen whom she met at the music school. At evenings in the house of the family Loman Anna performed in a domestic environment. Musicians like Johannes Verhulst and Diepenbrock were attending those evenings as well. Anna Witsen sang Verhulst’s songs, accompanied by the composer. She had a “moving, deeply radiant, melancholic voice”, according to To Loman. The Lomans house was on Van Baerlestraat 12 in Amsterdam and the musician with whom Anna was in love lived across the street. “Only with the windows wide open, she wanted to sing, hoping to reach him through her singing”, To Loman wrote in her diary.

Julius Röntgen worked as a piano pedagogue and was a conductor at Toonkunst’s music school. Röntgen was, just like Anna, born in 1855 and married Amanda Maier shortly before coming to the Netherlands. Prof. Loman and Anna’s father J.J. Witsen both knew each other through music; Anna’s father, merchant and aristocrat, had joined the board of the Maatschappij tot bevordering van Toonkunst, department Amsterdam. It was probably determined that Anna attended the music school of Toonkunst, where, in addition to language skills and sewing skills, making music was part of the compulsory repertoire of a good citizen girl.

It seems it was an unrequited love, because Röntgen was married. As a woman Anna believed that she had failed by staying alone. After all, the main goal in the life of the late nineteenth century woman was reproduction. The glorification of motherhood increased in that time was seen as the highest achievable ideal for women.

Anna also started to believe she was inadequate in other areas. She felt that her mere presence bothered her own brother and that her father did not see her. She was charged with severe fears and life unquestionably started tormenting her.

+/- 1885, photographer unknown

It finally led to Anna’s admissions from August 21, 1883 to March 31, 1884 to the ‘Geneeskundig Gesticht voor Krankzinnigen Utrecht’ (Institute for the Insane) to help her to get back on track again. When she was released from the hospital, however, her file stated that she was not cured. It must have been January to September 1888 that Anna was again admitted to the Insane Hospital, although I couldn’t find any evidence for that.

From mid-October 1888 Anna goes to Paris for a month. It seems to be better with her again. She even plans to perform again. On November 26 at 8 AM, Anna sings songs by Schumann and Brahms in the Odéon in Amsterdam, accompanied by the man she loves in silence, Julius Röntgen. The review in the Handelsblad reads: “(••)Mej. Anna Witsen is minder bekend. Wel liet zij zich voor enige jaren hier ter stede horen doch in betrekkelijk beperkte kring. / (••) Ms. Anna Witsen is less well-known. You could hear her here in town for some time, but in a relatively limited circle. Cobi and dad were attending the concert, but brother Willem was not.

March 5, 1889
In the early morning of this cold winterday in the gloomy month of March Anna decided to drown herself in the pond behind the house. Her death inspired Herman Gorter to write his beautiful poem ‘In den zwarten nacht is een mensch aangetreden’.

My daughter Ayla is playing the role of Anna is this series. I believe it’s beautiful to connect the past via the future to the present this way. The portraits shown on this page are the only two portraits of Anna I could find.