Louise Catherine Breslau was a German-born Swiss painter, who learned drawing to pass the time while bedridden with chronic asthma. She studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris, and exhibited at the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where she became a respected colleague of noted figures such as Edgar Degas and Anatole France.
Born Maria Luise Katharina Breslau into an apparently-assimilated Munich-based German Jewish family of Polish Jewish descent. In 1858, when Breslau was two years old, her father accepted the position of professor and head physician of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Zurich, and the family moved to Switzerland. In December 1866, Dr. Breslau died suddenly from a staph infection contracted while performing a post-mortem examination. Suffering from asthma all her life, Breslau turned to drawing as a child to help pass the time while confined to her bed. She spent her childhood in Zurich, Switzerland, and as an adult made Paris her home where she also dropped "Maria", perhaps taking "Maria" as inappropriate for a Jew regardless of whether its use is for "Mariam" or "Mary".
Lydia Escher (1858–1892) was a childhood friend of Louise Breslau in Zürich, and in her letters she told to take singing and piano lessons, and Lydia was inspired by the creative genius.
After her father's death, Breslau was sent to a convent near Lake Constance in hopes of alleviating her chronic asthma. It is believed that during her long stays at the convent her artistic talents were awoken. In the late 19th century young bourgeois ladies were expected to be educated in the domestic arts including drawing and playing the piano. These were admirable attributes for a respectable wife and mother. Pursuing a career was quite unusual and often prohibited. By 1874, after having taken drawing lessons from a local Swiss artist, Eduard Pfyffer (1836–1899), Breslau knew that she would have to leave Switzerland if she wanted to realize her dream of seriously studying art. One of the few places available for young women to study was at the Académie Julian in Paris.
At the Académie, Breslau soon gained the attention of its highly regarded instructors and the jealousy of some of her classmates, including the Russian Marie Bashkirtseff. She also met notably at this art school her longlife friend the Irish artist Sarah Purser and Sophie Schaeppi (Switzerland), Maria Feller (Italy), Jenny Zillhardt and her sister, Madeleine Zillhardt.
In 1879, with a portrait Tout passé, Breslau was the only student from the Académie Julian women's atelier to debut at the Paris Salon. Tout passé was a self -portrait that included her two friends. Shortly afterwards Breslau had changed her name to Louise Catherine, opened her own atelier, and was becoming a regular contributor and medal winner at the annual Salon. Due to her success at the Salon and favorable notice from the critics, Breslau received numerous commissions from wealthy Parisians. She joined the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1890, not only exhibiting in its salons but also serving on the jury. She eventually became the third woman artist, and the first foreign woman artist to be bestowed France's Legion of Honor award.
Over the years, Breslau became a well-regarded colleague to some of the day's most popular artists and writers including Edgar Degas and Anatole France. One person who was very special in Breslau's life was Madeleine Zillhardt with whom she spent over forty years. Madeleine, a fellow student at the Académie Julian, became Breslau's muse, model, confidant, and supporter. Zillhardt inherited Breslau’s estate and later donated sixty of the artist’s pastels and drawings to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. In 1932, Zillhardt published a book about Louise Breslau titled Louise Catherine Breslau et ses amis (Louise Catherine Breslau and her Friends).
Breslau died in 1927, and in 1928, the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris honored her with a retrospective. Her work was also featured in a 1932 retrospective at Galerie Charpentier dedicated to women who trained at the Académie Julian.