Precious Item of the Week

The Little Jacket (1895) by Agnes Richter

Greetings dear visitor and friend of our museum,

We’re glad that you’re here and reading along. Today we’re starting our series, the “Precious Item of the Week,” in which we will highlight a work from the new exhibition “Ein mehrfacher Millionenwerth” (“Worth More Than Many Millions“) Fragile Treasures of the Prinzhorn Collection. We begin with one of the icons of our collection, the little jacket by Agnes Richter (1844-1918). This garment, sewn by hand from coarse linen, is embroidered over and over again with words in colored thread – inside and out. We had a new display dummy created for the jacket, which you’ll find in the center of the exhibition.

When the little jacket was shown for the first time in the extensive German-Swiss traveling exhibition of the Prinzhorn Collection in the years 1980/1981, we only had the information on the attached note, presumably written by her doctor: “Agnes Richter, 1895. Dem[entia] praec[ox]. Sewed reminiscences from her life into all of her undergarments and clothing.” That means that this jacket was indeed Richter’s own, and that it was once part of a much larger body of work. The text was embroidered in the old German cursive – or Kurrent – script, primarily on the inside lining, but also on the outer sleeves. It is unfortunately difficult to decipher, and has in many places worn off. In fact, most of it is illegible. However, the frequent appearance of personal pronouns such as ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ as well as previous records indicate the autobiographic nature of the texts.

It was in the course of preparing the 2004 exhibition “irre ist weiblich. Künstlerische Interventionen von Frauen in der Psychiatrie um 1900“ (“Madness is Female. Artistic Interventions by Female Psychiatric Patients around 1900“) that Richter’s medical records were discovered in the Hubertusburg asylum. Richter was a seamstress, of small stature and hunchbacked, which might explain why she was still living alone in the early 1890s in Dresden. She had been in America for eight years, and had supposedly saved up quite a fortune. Back in her own country, she was afraid that she would be robbed. That’s why she summoned the police numerous times – until the officers arrested her in 1893 on charges of disturbing the peace and trespassing. She remained until her death in the Hubertusburg asylum.

In Richter’s medical records, neither the jacket nor other embroidered garments are mentioned. There is, however, a slip of paper with the number 583 at the top – a laundry slip that the patient sewed onto her items to ensure that they would be returned to her. Her garments were indeed quite different from the clothing usually worn in such institutions, and it is in fact quite astonishing that Richter was allowed to wear such unique clothes.

If you take a close look at the jacket, it seems to be illogically constructed: on the torso, the seams are facing outwards, and the sleeves themselves are attached the wrong way around, so that they face the back. Was the seamstress trying to express her “madness”? Due to the fact that sweat stains on the lining and shoulder seams don’t match up with each other, one can assume that Richter turned the torso of the jacket inside out at a later date. Thus, the embroidered text would no longer be legible from the outside, and she could begin stitching again – a work in progress. She only managed to complete a few lines, indicating that Richter must have turned the jacket inside out shortly before her death, and perhaps unintentionally sewed it incorrectly – and then most likely never wore it again.

The jacket has been exhibited repeatedly since 1980, including in Charleroi, London and Lausanne. Over the years, the fabric has become brittle, due to age and exposure to light.

Images: Agnes Emma Richter, handmade jacket embroidered with autobiographical text, 1895, Inv. No. 743

Image 1 &2: foto A.Conne, image 3 & 4 © Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg University Hospital