Forgotten brilliance - Serbia's first female sculptor

Unveiling the legacy of Vukosava Velimirović

Dr. Ana Stjelja (opens in new window)

Serbian women have long exemplified creativity, leaving indelible marks on the nation's cultural history. Among these remarkable individuals stands Vukosava Velimirović, the pioneering figure hailed as the first Serbian sculptor. Yet, her legacy remains relatively obscure within her homeland, despite earning recognition in various foreign encyclopaedias.

Throughout her life, Velimirović grappled with the dual nature of her creative fervour - a source of both empowerment and burden. In an era when women's involvement in the arts was often frowned upon or deemed unfeminine, she courageously navigated these societal constraints, steadfastly asserting her right to contribute to the cultural landscape.

Vukosava Velimirović's journey took her across numerous European capitals, where she not only honed her craft but also engaged with influential figures on both local and global stages. Despite her prolific output and encounters with greatness, her name gradually faded from memory as time marched on. Today, as we reflect on the rich tapestry of Serbian cultural heritage, it's imperative to shed light on Velimirović's invaluable contributions. Her story serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience and determination exhibited by women in pursuit of their artistic passions, transcending barriers and leaving an enduring legacy for generations to come.

An artistic childhood

Vukosava Velimirović was born in 1888 in Pirot, in a large family to father Miloš and mother Jelena, who was a teacher. She received her primary education in Pirot, primarily growing up in an intellectual and patriarchal family. It is recorded that Vukosava showed an interest in art from her earliest youth, especially writing and drawing, but also modelling. She wrote poems, fairy tales, travelogues, drew comics for children, made various shapes from clay and thus confirmed that her life’s path will be marked by art.

In 1911, Vuka Velimirović's family moved to Belgrade. Enrolling in the School of Arts and Crafts marked the beginning of her artistic journey in the Serbian capital. Renowned for her beauty, Vuka stood out among her peers, who collectively formed an extraordinary generation of schoolgirls, leaving a lasting imprint on Serbian cultural history. Notably, her talent for sculpture was recognised early on by her professor, the renowned Đorđe Jovanović, shaping her artistic career thereafter.

Vukosava in Paris

Following the First World War, she relocated to the artistic epicentre of Paris. Upon her arrival in Paris, Vuka became a student in the studio of the renowned French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who was equally captivated by her talent, much like the esteemed Serbian artists who had known her.

In an issue of the magazine ’Word and Image’ from 1926, Bourdelle expressed his admiration, stating, ’I am happy to once again affirm the intellectual and artistic prowess of the Serbian nation.’ He further praised Vuka Velimirović, likening her sculptural talent to that of the Serbian masters, noting the strength of her busts and the radiance of her faces. Her dedication to her artistic studies in Paris earned her recognition, and Bourdelle considered it an honour to have witnessed her work.

Under the mentorship of the renowned French sculptor, Vuka Velimirović gained entry into the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, where she trained from 1919 to 1921. Her initial days in Paris were enriched by connections with Russian refugee artists, many of whom were acquaintances of her brother, Dr. Milorad Velimirović, and her sister Zorka, a Russian translator. This circle comprised writers, actors, opera singers, and ballet dancers, forming an elite community. Inspired by these friendships, Vuka conceived the idea to sculpt busts of Georgy Yevgenyevich Prince Lvov, former president of the Russian government, and the renowned Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.

Vuka Velimirović's captivating artistic presence and sculpting prowess won acclaim in France, as evidenced by an excerpt from a ‘Figaro’ article: ‘Her powerful expressiveness and charm, captivating viewers, establish her among today's foremost sculptors. Traveling the world, she left true masterpieces in many lands, yet we hope France will be privileged to preserve the legacy of her immortal art...’

Vukosava in Rome

As an already established sculptor, Vuka Velimirović left Paris for Rome, where she also tried to perfect her sculpting skills. It was in Rome that Vukosava Velimirović's brilliant sculpting career began. She studied further at the Art Academy there, but also at Eton Ferrari's studio. During that period, she worked on the bust of the famous Italian baritone Mattia Battistini. It was this bust that would bring her world fame.

Sculpting across Europe

What the Serbian sculptor was known for were numerous trips to European countries where she left her artistic mark. Thus, in France, she portrayed the rich Russian emigration, the French nobility, and artists such as the famous bass Fyodor Chaliapin, and the singer and dancer Josephine Baker. In Spain, she made portraits of marquises and intellectuals, and in Turkey, at the invitation of Ataturk, she made his portrait, which was followed by an offer for a monument to the Republic of Turkey, which was never implemented. Vukosava is the creator of sculptural compositions on the house of the Veljković family, which was used by the Turkish embassy, and which was declared a cultural monument.

Vuka is also the artist behind a bust of Vincent de Moro-Giafferi, a famous Parisian politician and lawyer who was known as a lawyer for the poor.

Vuka exhibited this bust for the first time in 1926 in the Georges Petit Gallery (Galerie Georges Petit), along with several other busts, mostly of prominent Serbs, such as Miroslav Spalajković, the Yugoslav minister in Paris, and industrialist Đorđe Vajfert. Three of her sculptures cast in bronze are also famous, showing her extraordinary talent and distinctive sculptural expression.

Vukosava’s personal notebook

The recently discovered memorial notebook of Vuka Velimirović sheds light on previously obscure aspects of her life. Within its pages, readers can delve into her vibrant artistic and social circles, her connections with European and international artists, her marriage to Count Martineri, her intriguing encounters with figures like the Indian poet Tagore and Tolstoy's daughter Tatiana Suhotin, and the admiration she garnered as a student of sculptor Alfred Pina.

Notably, Vuka is the second Serbian woman known to have captivated the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, following in the footsteps of Serbian writer, feminist, and adventurer Jelena J. Dimitrijević, who was among the few women to visit Tagore in Santiniketan and later penned the acclaimed ‘Letters from India’ based on her experiences.

Vukosava in World War II

Although she spent a portion of her life abroad, Vuka Velimirović consistently remained a representative of her country and culture. Therefore, upon the outbreak of World War II, she made the decision to return to Serbia to stand alongside her people amidst the German occupation and the horrors of war.

Her visits to Paris were limited, occurring only once after the war, where she confronted the stark reality that much of her work had either vanished or been destroyed. She lived out her remaining years in the Serbian capital, exhibiting her art until her passing in 1965 at a very old age. Her burial at the New Cemetery was modest, with little public attention, as newspapers of that era scarcely covered her death.