About five or six years ago I was fortunate enough to be having a short break in Europe and one of my journeys was from Dresden to Prague, partly by boat on the river Elbe and partly by train. The banks of the River Elbe, like the German Rhine, is littered with palaces and castles perched high above the river. My featured painting for today entitled Crossing at the Schreckenstein by Ludwig Richter reminded me of that trip and I remember the castle well as it stood imperiously above the river.
Adrian Ludwig Richter, the son of Karl August Richter, a copper engraver, was born in 1803 in Dresden. He received his initial artistic training from his father. He attended the Dresden Academy of Art and his favoured artistic genre was that of landscape painting and at the age of twenty, with the financial backing of a Dresden book dealer, he was awarded a scholarship to travel to Rome to continue his studies. Whilst in Rome he came across Joseph Anton Koch, an Austrian landscape painter of the German Romantic Movement who was famous for idealised landscapes. It was whilst in Italy that Richter produced the first of many of his idyllic Italian landscape paintings.
Richter returned to Dresden in 1826 and two years later went to work as a designer at the Meissen factory. Richter made many hiking trips through the mountains of Bohemia and along the Elbe and gradually his landscape art changed from the idealistic landscapes to the topographically accurate ones. Richter was a lifelong lover of the works of Caspar David Friedrich and his influence can be seen in a number of Richter’s works. In most cases he would add figures to his landscapes and through them tell a story. In 1841 he became a professor at the Dresden Academy and would often take parties of students on walking tours through the local mountains where they would sketch and return to the college where they would use them to complete their works of art.
In 1874 at the age seventy-one an eye disease caused his sight to deteriorate to such an extent that he had to give up his art work. He died in 1884 at Loschwitz , a few month short of his 81st birthday.
The title of today’s painting Crossing at Schreckenstein is also known as Crossing the Elbe at Schreckenstein near Aussig and I have even seen it referred to as Ferry at the Schreckenstein. So what do we see before us? One can almost hear the tune from the harp as the ferryman and his boat transport their passengers across the Elbe. Note the varied age of the passengers, spread between the child through to the old man and it was thought that Richter’s ferryboat was a “ship of life” in which the passengers of all ages are united. The ferryman leans back as he heaves on his paddle. With pipe in his mouth, his eyes are raised towards the hilltop castle. He still seems in awe of the great edifice notwithstanding how many daily crossing of the river he makes.
At his feet there seems to be a small cargo of plants which are being transported across the waterway and next to them we see a young girl standing with a pole in her hand. We do not know whether she is the ferryman’s helper or just another passenger. In the middle of the boat we focus our attention on a young man, standing up with his back to us, who like us, stares up at the castle whilst the old man plays a folk song about times past.
A young couple cuddle up together. His hand rests on hers as she holds on to a posy of flowers. Neither of them are aware of the beauty of their surroundings or their fellow travellers. They only have eyes for each other. A man sits in front of the elderly harp player, resting his chin on his hand, his eyes cast downwards. He too seems unaware of the surrounding landscape. He is lost in thought. A small boy at his feet with his hand resting over the gunwale of the craft, drags a small branch through the calm water, slightly rippled by the current. The curved shape of the upper part of the painting in some way lends it a somewhat solemn and religious feel.
The setting for this picture was probably one Richter saw on his many hikes along the banks of the Elbe. Maybe the last word on the painting should be given to the artist himself. He described his work in his autobiography, Lebenserinnerungen eines deutschen Malers, which was edited by his son:
“…As I remained standing on the bank of the Elbe after sunset, watching the activities of the boatmen, I was particularly struck by an old ferryman who was responsible for the crossing. The boat loaded with people and animals, cut through the quiet current, in which the evening sky was reflected. So eventually it happened that the ferry came over, filled with a colorful crowd among who sat an old harpist who, instead of paying the penny for his passage, played a tune on his harp….”
The view is as magnificent today as it was in the time of Richter with the once mighty castle perched above the river. Bridges and locks now straddle the waterway and the ferryman’s efforts are no longer needed. If ever you visit the area be sure to take the river journey down the mighty Elbe and savour the splendour of the river banks.