Vita Petersen, 1915-2011


Vita Petersen, German-born abstract artist, died Oct. 22 in New York, age 96. Petersen painted abstract, colorful forms characterized by rigorous, quiet gestures, often in pastel on paper. She showed with Betty Parsons Gallery in the 1960s, during which time she moved towards figuration, painting figures in a crowd or still lifes, but she returned to abstraction thereafter. Her paintings are in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Weatherspoon Art Museum.

Petersen was born Vita von Simson in 1915, the daughter of Berlin aristocrats (her father was a secretary of state during the Weimar Republic) and a descendent of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. She grew up surrounded by art; the family villa on Lake Wannsee, southwest of Berlin, was filled with paintings by Manet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Of her five older siblings, she was closest to her brother, Otto von Simson, who later became an art historian and a professor at the University of Chicago.

In an age when women artists were not taken seriously, Petersen—with the encouragement of Max Liebermann, one of the most respected artists of his time, and a neighbor on Lake Wannsee-convinced her parents to let her study art. At first, she took lessons with the German Expressionist Willy Jaeckel, because the models in his classes were not entirely nude. Then she joined the prestigious class of Karl Hofer at the Berlin Art Academy.

Both of Petersen’s teachers were soon deemed “degenerate,” and the rise of the Nazis put an end to Petersen’s sophisticated Berlin upbringing. Because of her Jewish roots, she was not allowed to marry her fiancé, Gustav Petersen. He left for New York, and she joined him a year later, in 1938. New York proved the right place to be for an artist in the 1940s. Petersen befriended Mercedes Matter, who, like her, was an artist and the mother of a young child. Mercedes and her husband Herbert Matter, the Swiss/American photographer and designer, introduced the Petersens to Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and the artist circles of New York. Hans Hofmann, also from Germany, became an influential mentor.

Petersen painted every day, switching to a black and white palette in the year before her death, when an eye condition made it difficult to differentiate among colors.


Magic Flute, 2007. mixed media on paper. 24 x 18 inches