The focus of my blog today is to look at the life and work of the nineteenth century Austrian painter Rudolph Ritter von Alt. The word “Ritter”is used as a title of nobility in German-speaking areas. It translates approximately to the British designation “Sir”, denoting a Knight. It is not a first or middle name of the person. The artist was born Rudolph Alt and used the title of a Ritter after he gained nobility in 1889.
Rudolph was born in Vienna on August 28th 1812. His father, Jakob Alt, the son of a carpenter, was a German landscape painter and lithographer who was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1789 where he received his first artistic tuition and later moved to Vienna where he enrolled at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Jakob Alt travelled through Austria and Italy, hiking through the Austrian Alps, all the while painting scenes of beauty. He also depicted many scenes of the neighbourhood along the River Danube and in the city of Vienna.
Rudolph Alt had a younger brother, Franz, who was nine years his junior and who also became a famed Austrian landscape painter. His work can be seen in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt Museum (Smithsonian), the Albertina Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and other international collections.
Rudolphe, like his father before him, went on many hiking-trips through the Austrian Alps and northern Italy and fell in love with the spectacular landscapes he witnessed.
In 1833, he travelled to Venice where he pictorially recorded his visit. He was inspired by the city of Venice and took the opportunity to visit neighbouring areas as well as the Italian capital, where he completed a number of architectural paintings
Rudolphe von Alt was a talented watercolourist and during his journeys around Italy he completed many watercolours featuring various Italian cities.
In 1830, five years before he took the throne, Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria started to develop a plan which entailed the commissioning of paintings depicting the most beautiful views of the Austrian Empire. Jakob Alt, and his eldest son, Rudolf were two of the commissioned artists and between them they painted about one hundred and seventy of the three hundred completed works. The project came to an end in 1849 a year after Ferdinand abdicated.
Rudolphe’s watercolour depictions of interiors of wealthy patrons’ residences brought him more recognition from the Austrian public
The grandeur of the interior of many palaces was captured by Rudolphe in his magnificent watercolour paintings. Originally the Gothic Valtice palace was founded in the 12th century by the bishops of Passau and in 1530 Valtice became the place of residence of the princely family of Liechtenstein, one of the wealthiest families in Europe.
A less formal room was captured by Rudolphe von Alt in his 1836 watercolour entitled Drawing Room at the Rasumofsky Palace. The palace was commissioned by Prince Andrey Razumovsky as a Neoclassic embassy which would be worthy of the representative of the Russian Tsar, Alexander I. It was built at the prince’s own expense on Landstraße, close to the centre of Vienna. Razumovsky then filled the rooms of the palace with antiquities and modern works of art.
A large number of Rudolphe von Alt’s paintings are held in the Princely House of Liechtenstein collections in Vaduz, Liechtenstein and Vienna. The Princely House of Liechtenstein is one of the oldest noble lineages in Europe being first mentioned in the twelfth century. The Princely House of Liechtenstein is one of the oldest still extant noble lineages in Europe. The first documented bearer of this name was a Hugo von Liechtenstein, mentioned in archival sources dating to between 1120 and 1143.
The family’s art collection had its beginnings in the sixteenth century and has been influenced over time by the varying interests of individual princes. The collection has been assembled over several centuries, and now the Collections of the Prince von und zu Liechtenstein are one of the most important private art collections in the world, containing around 1,600 paintings with masterpieces ranging from the early Renaissance to the second half of the nineteenth century, including works by Lukas Cranach the Elder, Quentin Massys, Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Friedrich von Amerling and Hans Makart and today’s artist, Rudolphe von Alt,
Alt demonstrated a remarkable talent for expressing certain peculiarities in nature. He managed to paint nature authentically by focusing on the different hues of sky, the colour-tone of the air and the vegetation.
His later works were more Impressionistic in style but maybe above all von Alt will be remembered for his exquisite architectural and indoor scenes, genres that made him famous in Vienna.
Rudolphe Ritter von Alt died in Vienna on March 12th 1905, aged 92. Most of his paintings are held by various museums in Vienna.
Today’s blog is a very short one. I think I have mentioned before how I choose an artist to write about. There are two things I need before I can embark on the journey of looking at the life of an artist. Firstly, I need to have multiple sources which offer a biography of the painter. Why multiple? Because you would be amazed at how often I come across differing facts such as names of family members, educational information and simple dates and I have to work out what are the true facts. Secondly, I must have a wide range of pictures so as to be able to highlight the artist’s skill as a painter. Proceeding with the blog without both of these is very difficult.
However once in a while, and today is one of those occasions, I come across artwork which is so good that I just have to formulate a blog even though my knowledge about the artist’s life is severely limited. I scoured the internet and reference books and, as I was on a three-day visit to London on child-minding duties, I even went to the British Library but all to no avail as little seems to be written about today’s painter although the auction houses such as Bonhams, Christies and Sothebys offered samples of his art without a biography, which is somewhat unusual. Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Austrian portrait and genre painter Alois Heinrich Priechenfried.
Much of the Jewish art by Priechenfried focused on the quiet contemplation of the holy scriptures.
Alois Michel Priechenfried, the artist’s father, was a gilder by trade. Gilding is the decorative technique for applying a very thin coating of gold to solid surfaces such as metal, wood, porcelain, or stone. He married Anna Hackensoellner and the couple had three children, August Franz, Georg and Alois. Alois Heinrich Priechenfried was born June 25th, 1867 in the Gumpendorf district of Vienna.
Alois was brought up in the Catholic faith although when I first looked at his paintings I wrongly believed that he must have been Jewish. Many of his paintings featured rabbis as is the one he painted entitled Seated Rabbi. The quotation behind the rabbi is from Psalms 118:17, “I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of the Lord.”
My favourite painting of his featuring people of the Jewish religion is one entitled Reading the Scriptures. There is something very peaceful about this painting. The rabbis, who are seen reading the holy book or quietly contemplating what they have just read, offers one a feeling of extreme serenity which many people get from their belief in their religion and their God. I suppose, being a non-believer, I miss out on such times of peaceful contemplation.
Not all Priechenfried’s paintings depicted aspects of the Jewish religion for one of his best paintings features a cleric from the Catholic religion. It is simply entitled A Cardinal Reading. Once again it is a portrayal of tranquil meditation.
When young Alois was fourteen years old, he followed in his father’s footsteps and trained and worked as a gilder. At the age of seventeen he enrolled for one year at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts as a guest student.
One of his professors at the Academy was the German painter, Christian Griepenkerl. Griepenkerl had been appointed a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 1874 and three years later he was the lead professor at the Academy’s special school for historical painting. Griepenkerl specialised in allegorical representation using themes from classical mythology and portraiture. He taught many of the foremost painters of the time including Egon Schiele and Anton Peschka but his teaching methodology and that of the Academy was looked upon by many young students as antiquated and overly-conservative and so many left the Academy and founded the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group), which fostered its own style without Academic constraints. Christian Griepenkerl later became famous for refusing Adolf Hitler’s application to join the Academy in 1907 stating that Hitler’s entrance submission piece was both unimaginative and unsatisfactory.
Alois married a Emile Aurelia Watzek, a Yugoslavian lady in 1890 and the couple went on to have eight children. As can be seen in the above painting and the ones below, he also completed many genre works.
Priechenfried spent many periods of his life in Munich but always returned to his beloved Vienna.
Alois Heinrich Priechenfried died on May 24th 1953 at his home in Diefenbachgasse in the Rudolfsheim-Fünfhausdistrict of Vienna which lies on the northern bank of the River Wien. He was 85.
My apologies for the lack of biographical information but I am sure you will agree the paintings themselves are worth the blog. If anybody knows more about Priechenfried I would love to hear from you and then I could update this blog.
Finally, Merry Christmas and a belated Happy Hanukkah to everyone.
My blog today starts with a caricature of Gottlieb Biedermeier. Gottlieb is not the artist of the day. He is just the lead-in to the star attraction. Gottlieb Biedermeier, more commonly referred to as Papa Biedermeier, used to appear as a cartoon character in the popular newspaper, Fliegende Blätter, a German weekly non-political humour and satire magazine which appeared between 1845 and 1944 in Munich, and it is through his regular appearance that this period was actually termed the Biedermeier era, an era which stretched between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Republican revolts against European monarchies of 1848, which began in Sicily, and spread to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Papa Biedermeier was a comic symbol of middle-class comfort. The art of the Biedermeier period came to be characterized by what art critics of the period termed “rigorous simplicity.” The works of art often had an enamel-like finish that masked individual brushstrokes. Landscape and portraiture grew in importance while history painting declined. In painting, the Biedermeier style reflected the bourgeois, simple, joyful, affable and conformist environment, enhanced the aesthetics of the natural beauty and has influence on contemporary art and design.
In Austria painters during this time portrayed a sentimental and virtuous view of the world but in a realistic way. The German word best describing the emotions derived from the art is gemütlichkeit, which is a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities of gemütlichkeit include cosiness, peace of mind, belonging, and well-being. In other words, a “feel good” factor and such comfort, as depicted, emphasized family life and private activities, especially letter writing and the pursuit of hobbies. No Biedermeier household was complete without a piano as an indispensable part of the popularized soiree. Soirees perpetuated the rising middle class’s cultural interests in books, writing, dance, and poetry readings—most subject matter for Biedermeier paintings was either genre or historical and most often sentimentally treated. The leading Austrian exponent of this type of art is my artist of the day. He is Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller was born in Vienna in January 1793. In 1807, at the age of fourteen, Waldmüller studied Fine Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna under the Austrian painter, draughtsman, and well-respected teacher, Hubert Maurer, who had been teaching art at the Academy since 1785. Waldmüller remained there until 1811. Waldmüller then went to Presburg in Hungary to study portraiture. Following that he worked in Croatia as a drawing teacher for the children of the Count Gyulay, the governor of Croatia before returning to the Academy in 1813 to carry on with his artistic studies, this time concentrating on portraiture.
Whilst in Vienna Waldmüller would visit the court and municipal galleries where he would make copies of the Old Masters.
One example of this is his version of Juseppe de Ribera’s Martyrdom of St Anthony which the Spanish artist completed in 1628 which is now in the Szépmüvészeti Museum in Budapest. St. Andrew was St Peter’s brother and preached around the Black Sea Area. According to legend he was crucified on two pieces of wood which formed an “X” which has since become known as the cross of St Andrew.
Waldmüller’s copy of the painting can be seen in the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna. Waldmüller had hoped to sell the copies he made of the paintings of the Old Masters but the income from this venture was insufficient for him to live and support himself.
In 1814, Waldmüller married a well-known Austrian opera singer, Katharina Weidner and he worked as a scenery designer at the various venues at which his wife was performing. He took up the role as professor of art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and in 1823 exhibited for the first time at the Vienna Akademie.
For the next decade he travelled around Europe, enhancing his reputation as a leading portraitist of his time and in 1827. He received royal patronage following his portrait of the nineteen year old Franz I, who would become the Holy Roman Emperor in 1845.
His art at the time concentrated on portraiture, an art genre in which Waldmüller excelled. His portraits had a high smooth-finish and decorative detail and were often compared to the French Neo-classical painter Ingres. One of his most beautiful portraits is entitled Portrait of a Lady, which he completed in 1820.
One of the most famous of his sitters was Ludwig van Beethoven who sat for him in 1823. The portrait had been commissioned by the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf & Härtel. According to notes and letters, it was a one-off sitting and even that was interrupted. So in the short time he had, Waldmüller only portrayed Beethoven’s face, and it was later, back in his studio, that he added the clothes and probably also parts of his hair. The original was destroyed in 1943 but fortunately, the portrait was so popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that it was reproduced and copied many times.
Perhaps, one may consider his portraits of children a little too “syrupy” but this should not detract from the excellent portraits. In 1835, Waldmüller, whilst living in Vienna, completed a commission to paint the portrait of seven year old Julia Aspraxin, the daughter of Count Alexandr Petrovich Aspraxia, a serving Russian in Vienna.
In 1832 he painted a portrait of the two-year-old Franz Josef, the future Austrian Emperor entitled Portrait of the Future Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria as a Grenadier with Toy Soldiers. The child posed for the artist in the uniform of a grenadier along with some similarly dressed Hungarian wooden figures. It is like a state portrait on a miniature scale. The child, with his blue eyes, looks out innocently unaware of his future role and the disasters that would follow.
Waldmüller painted pictures of all genres and had soon built up his standing as a talented landscape painter. His beautiful landscape artistry was appreciated by the public and in the 1850’s he became very interested in the depiction of sunlight and the contrast between light and shadow which one realises was a pre-cursor to Impressionism. I especially like his 1831 paintings featuring the elm trees in Prater, the large park in Vienna. One was entitled Old Elms in Prater. Look at the extraordinary detail.
The other simply, Elms in the Prater. His landscape artistry was based on his strong belief that art should be determined by the careful and meticulous examination of nature. For Waldmüller, a talented colourist and someone who had a great knowledge of nature, it was all about natural observation achieved by plein air painting and not so much the way art was taught in academies. It was, like the Impressionists, fifty years later, about the effect of light.
Another beautiful landscape work was his 1838 painting entitled View Of The Dachstein With The Hallstättersee From The Hütteneckalpe At Ischl.
He became the curator of the Gemäldegalerie of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1829, a post he held for almost three decades. However in 1849 and again in 1857, he wrote critical papers with regards the Academy and academic teaching of art and, at the age of sixty-four , was forced to resign from his position at the Academy.
The third “string” to Waldmüller’s artistic bow was his great talent as a genre painter. His genre paintings shied away from idealisation or pretentiousness and although he would often add historical and religious elements to his depictions he was never afraid to highlight social criticism in the paintings. Through his depictions of life in the countryside his paintings extolled the virtue of rural life and at the same time highlighting the positivity of family life. Such joyousness can be seen in his 1857 painting, Corpus Christi Morning. Life for the peasant class may not all laughing and dancing but for that moment in time life could not be better. It was a gemütlichkeit time.
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller completed his painting Children decorating a Conscript’s Hat in 1854. The painting depicts a very poignant moment. It was an occasion of great importance to rural families. We see a group of girls, maybe his sisters, decorating the hat of a young man who has been called up to fight for his country during his compulsory military service. His hat is being decorated with flowers and ribbons. The decorating of the hat is a time of joy and merriment which masks the possible horrors the young man may encounter. As far as art is concerned, it is a masterpiece of evocative genre painting and, the work is a testament to how Waldmüller depicts the intricate interplay of light and shadow.
Another work by Waldmüller, The Depature of the Conscript, shows the family of a conscript saying their farewells and wishing him a safe journey. His mother places the decorated hat on the head of her son. Look how the boy wraps one arm around his mother whilst his other hand is held lovingly by his father. It is now that maybe they realise that the ceremony of decorating the hat will mean nought if their beloved son does not return home. In the background we see women in tears. A young man, maybe the conscript’s younger brother, looks back pensively at his older brother wondering when it will be his time to join the military. The conscript’s young sisters try to cling hold of him, not wanting him to go. This is not a scene of joy but one of realism, one of foreboding.
I have always loved genre paintings especially when there are numerous characters depicted. Each time I look at painting like this I discover something different.
In 1851, Waldmüller, aged 58, married his second wife, 25-year-old Anna Bayer. He carried on exhibiting his work at various exhibitions, including the prestigious World Exhibition in Paris and at the International Exhibition in London. In 1856 he travelled to London where he sold thirty one of his paintings to the royal household and court. By the 1860s, the Academy in Vienna had forgiven Waldmüller’s transgressions and outspoken views critical of their institute and their teaching methods and he was once again welcomed back to the Viennese artistic fold. He was knighted in 1865, shortly before his death that August, aged 72.
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller is looked upon as one of the most important Austrian painters of the Biedermeier period. His superb artistic talent, as a landscape painter, was never questioned. He was an advocate of plein air painting, putting down on canvas what the eye could see. This to him was of greater importance than the art taught in academies. The way in which he achieved an accurate characterisation of the human face took his portraiture to another level. His genre works which depicted rural everyday life were outstanding. The depictions, often moralising and socially judgemental would set a marker for future artists who favoured this genre.
The artist I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today is the Austrian academic history painter Hans Makart. He was an artist who was so loved by the high society of Vienna that he attained an almost cult-like status. He was born Johann Evangelist Ferdinand Apolinaris Makart in Salzburg in May 1840. His mother was Mary Catherine Rüssemayr and his father was John Makart, who was the chamberlain at the Mirabell Palace in Salzburg. He must have shown some artistic talent as a youngster for he enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1858. His tutor was the Austrian painter of genre pieces and landscapes, Johann Fischbach. However, his tenure at this famous art establishment was short lived as his tutors found that he lacked the talent to become an academic painter. Hans Makart was not to be put off by the comments of his former tutors as he still retained a great self-belief in his artistic ability. In 1860 Makart moved from Vienna to Munich and in 1861 enrolled at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München, also known as the Munich Academy and, for four years, studied under the tutelage of the German painter and Munich Academician, Karl von Piloty. During those four years he also found time to visit London, Paris and Rome.
His artistic “break” came in 1868 but the lead up to his opportunity began ten years earlier. The inner city of Vienna in 1857 was ringed by its 13th century city walls. However in that year the emperor, Franz Josef, decreed that the walls should be demolished and in their place a wide thoroughfare was to be built, which would circle the inner city. This large-scale building project was financed, in part, by the sale to private individuals, of land alongside the proposed boulevard, which had not been set aside for public buildings or parks. The work started in 1858 and was completed seven years later. It became known as the Ringstraße and soon buildings, both private and public, were erected along the tree-lined boulevard. People loved their new boulevard and would take the opportunity to stroll along the Ringstraße. This love of promenading by the citizens of Vienna was captured in Theodore Zasche’s work entitled The Ringstrasse,Vienna.
One of the first public buildings erected along the Ringstraße was the Vienna Künstlerhaus which was completed and opened in September 1868 and became home to the Austrian Artists’ Society. To mark its opening it held an art exhibition and Hans Markt was invited to submit some of his work. One of the paintings he sent was a very large triptych entitled Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids). It was such a large work that he even sent written instructions and drawings as how it was to be hung to achieve the best visual result. All three paintings were bought by Count Johann Palffy who later commissioned more work from Makart, including a portrait of his wife. A few months after the end of the exhibition Emperor Franz Joseph, who had already acquired some of Makart’s works, invited him to return to Vienna and in return for doing so, he was provided with a large studio, for his art work, which had once been a foundry.
Makart filled the place with sculpture, ornate furniture, musical instruments and flowers, all of which he used as a backdrop to his historical works and for his staged elaborate and opulent interiors which he incorporated as backgrounds for some of his portraiture. Before long the former foundry was not just a simple, if large, artist’s studio, but a Salon and it was here he would invite his friends, models and patrons. He entertained everybody notwithstanding whether they were nobility or bourgeoisie. The social class of his guests mattered little to him, all he wanted from them was their adoration of him as an artist. It was simply his showroom for marketing his paintings. The visitors were merely his admiring audience and soon he became the talk of the Viennese high society. He had become a cult hero and he loved every minute of it. He had become the leading artistic figure of Viennese society.
Makart did not shy away from controversy. He saw nothing controversial in his art work and in fact he realised that controversy could work in his favour. Alexander Klee, a curator at Vienna’s Belvedere museum commented on this aspect of Makart’s art, saying:
“…Part of the scandal came from erotic features in his paintings. Adults kissing, loose-fitting clothing, an uncovered ankle, monks receiving sexual favours, gold backgrounds inspired by church paintings with nudes in the forefront, depictions of sex and crime – these were all scandalous and sometimes almost blasphemous compositions…”
One such painting which caused ructions was one Makart completed in 1878 entitled The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp. In the work we see Charles V, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, depicted arriving in Antwerp in 1525. Makart has depicted the triumphal procession surrounded by beautiful scantily-clad virgins. Art critics of the time questioned why such nudity should appear in a modern historical scene and suggested that their inclusion was simply a tawdry way Makart had used to be noticed. In the United States, the painting fell afoul of the Comstock Law, a law named after Anthony Comstock, the United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to the strict ideas of Victorian morality which made illegal the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material . As we know, there is no such thing as bad publicity and despite prints of the painting being banned in America, the Americans were desperate to see the work and make their own judgement and of course the painting, in a round-about way, secured Makart’s fame in that country.
However maybe the critics were overly harsh about Makart’s inclusion of semi naked women in the historical painting as Albrecht Dürer in his book, Journal of a Voyage to the Netherlands wrote:
“…I gave a sou for a little book describing the entry into Antwerp where the king received a costly triumph. The city gates were ornamented in the most costly manner; there was music and great rejoicing, and beautiful maidens whose like I have seldom seen…”
And in 1526 Dürer wrote to his friend with regards the scene, writing:
“…I looked at these young women very attentively and closely, and without shame, because I am a painter…”
One presumes Makart was aware of Dürer’s comments as he included him in the crowd scene in his work!
Another historical painting Makart completed in 1875 was sold at auction this year for 757,300 Euros. It was his work entitled Death of Cleopatra. The painting depicts the dramatic moment immediately after the snake has plunged its poisonous fangs into Cleopatra’s breast. The portrayal of the dying queen derives its intensity from the contrast between the depiction of Cleopatra’s luxurious silk garments along with her glittering gold jewellery that adorn her body and the pale opaqueness of her skin. We see the blue tinge on her right breast at the point where the asp has struck. The sitter for this painting was a friend of Makart, Charlotte Wolter, a Viennese actress. Gabriel Frodl, who was once director of the Belvedere in Vienna, describes how Makart set the scene:
“…In this manner, the painter conveys an erotic-lascivious mood, further emphasised by the palpable vulnerability of the body, doomed to die among the now insignificant luxury of its surroundings…”
Makart’s artistic work had now branched out in many directions. He not only created works of art on canvas but also designed costumes and furniture and conceived elegant interior designs for upper-class residences and his work became known as Makartstil (Makart-style). In 1879, just before his fortieth birthday, he was commissioned to organise a pageant and parade as part of the Silver Wedding Anniversary celebrations of the marriage of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife, Elizabeth of Bavaria.
It was a great success and Makart took this as an opportunity of self-aggrandisement for besides designing the costumes for the people on the floats, cars and carriages and the scenic settings for the various floats he designed a float specifically for artists, which would head the parade and this would be headed by Makart himself on a white horse. It is no wonder that this parade later became known as the Makart-parade. The Makart-styled parade was such a success with the Viennese people been given the opportunity to dress up in beautiful historical costumes and be “transported” back to bygone times. Such was the triumph of this parade and pageant that annual parades followed.
One could not end a blog about Makart and his paintings if one did not delve into his portraiture. Many men sat for their portraits but it is Makart’s sensual and seductive portraits of upper-class females which were his best. One such painting was his 1883 Portrait of Anna von Waldberg which he completed a year before her death. In the painting we see her wearing a black bustle-era evening dress with its low-cut neckline. The design was less conservative but incorporates a black bow as a modesty piece hiding the lady’s cleavage.
The final work of Makart which I am featuring is his famous; some would say his infamous, five-panel oil painting entitled Die Füunf Sinne (The Five Senses) which he completed in around 1879. It is a study in the nude, depicting five different views of his ideal female form under the guise of the five senses: the senses of smelling, seeing, hearing, feeling and tasting. Each of the five senses is represented by the action of the female nude.
Hans Makart died in October 1884, aged 44. He was buried in an honorary grave in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. The Austrian postal service has issued a number of stamps honouring his memory, the most recent being in 1990 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.
I suppose the most challenging and distressing period of one’s life is when somebody close to us, somebody we love, dies. It is both a traumatic and painful time when suddenly we feel the loss of someone we loved. Later, we want to cling to memories of the dead person. We want to remember them forever. We do not want to ever forget that person who had so touched our lives. How do we do that? Within days of our loved one dying, we are offered the chance to see the deceased one last time as they lay in rest in the funeral parlour. I have done that on a number of occasions and regretted it. I probably did it more out of duty than out of a desire to see the body of the dead person. The face of the deceased I looked down upon was not the way I wanted to remember them. It makes no difference how well the mortician has waved his or her magic wand over the deceased, the face of the person is pallid and lifeless and only our mental capacity and power of imagination can change that image. Ultimately, our fondest recollection of the deceased person is almost always through photographs, which sadly, like our recollections, fade over time. Even after photography became the medium of remembrance, a painting of a person acted as an aide-mémoire and in today’s blog I want to look at how one family wanted to remember their deceased daughter.
My blog today is about a mother’s love for her dead daughter and her desire to hold on to her memories of her beautiful girl through a posthumous painting. The mother in question was Aranka Pulitzer Munk. She was the niece of Joseph Pulitzer, the man who, through the provisions in his will, set up the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism. Aranka married Alexander Munk, a wealthy Polish industrialist in 1882 and the couple went on to have three daughters, Lili, Maria (Ria) and Lola. The daughter that is featured in today’s blog is the second-born girl, Ria, who was born in November 1887. Ria was an extremely beautiful young woman and in 1911, when she was twenty-four years old, she had become the lover of the forty-year old German poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers. This was never going to be a good match for Ewers reputation as a libertine was well known and wherever he went, scandals followed. However maybe it was this that drew Ria to the latter-day “bad boy” character. They eventually became betrothed and despite Ria entering this arrangement with a sizeable dowry, Ewers called it off. According to the book Gustave Klimt by Jane Rogoyska and Patrick Bade, Ewers wrote Ria a letter that December, in which he described her as “a hopeless romantic and out of touch with reality”. As one can imagine, Ria was devastated and could not come to terms with the break-up and at noon on December 28th she took a gun and shot herself through the heart.
Whereas now, the tabloid papers would be full of the scandalous story of the suicide of the daughter of a wealthy family, the suicide of Ria Munk was of little import in the local press. On the contrary, Viennese society looked upon suicide following a broken relationship as almost the norm. There was even a sense of romanticism about it, similar to cases of death at the end of a duel which was fought over someone’s honour. The Viennese society seemed to be in awe of the pomp and ceremony of grand funeral processions which followed on from such deaths. The famous Austrian writer and journalist, Stefan Zweig summed it up in his 1943 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, when he wrote:
“…‘In Vienna, even funerals found enthusiastic audiences and it was the ambition of every true Viennese to have a lovely corpse, with a majestic procession and many followers; even his death converted the genuine Viennese into a spectacle for others. In this receptivity for all that was colourful festive and resounding, in this pleasure in the theatrical, whether it was on the stage or in reality, both as theatre and as a mirror of life, the whole city was at one…”
That may in the case but one can only imagine the devastation and heartbreak felt by her parents. Her mother, Aranka, decided that she wanted a posthumous portrait painted of her daughter. Aranka’s sister was Serena Lederer (neé Pulitzer) and she was one of Gustav Klimt’s main patrons and he had painted her portrait in 1899 and a portrait of her daughter, Portrait of Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt in 1916. Serena Lederer and her husband August had built up the largest collection of the Austrian artist’s works and so it was logical for Aranka to ask her sister to speak to Klimt about the portrait commission, Klimt was, at that time, the most sought after portraitist in Vienna. It was also around this time in Viennese society that the death-mask portrait and the death-bed portrait had grown to become in vogue with city’s privileged classes, and so following the tragedy of her daughter’s suicide, Aranka Munk decided that she would commission a death-bed portrait of her beloved Ria and arranged, through her sister, to have Klimt paint it.
Presumably with the help of photographs, Klimt completed the death-bed portrait of Ria Munk in 1912 and it was entitled Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I), Ria Munk on her Deathbed (Ria Munk I). The background of the work is dark blue and is in stark contrast to the red carnations which form part of the garland of flowers, which frame Ria’s beautiful face. Looking at the work we see Ria lying peacefully with her head on a white pillow. Surrounding the pillow there are some white carnations. There is no indication that Ria has died a violent death. This painting is all about Ria’s beauty. Her chest is covered in orange, red and purple fabric, which hide from us the bullet wound. She is at peace. Klimt has painted her with pink cheeks. As yet her facial features have not begun to sink into her skull. Her mouth is partly open which make us think that she is just asleep. She is surrounded by flowers and many people draw a similarity to Klimt’s depiction of her and the depiction of the tragic heroine in John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting, Ophelia. It is a lovely portrait which exudes an aura of peace and serenity but there was also something about it that made her parents to reject it. Aranka Munk decided the work, although beautiful, was too death-like and too distressful to behold. Aranka then belatedly decided that she wanted the aide-mémoire of her daughter to be a painting of how she remembered her when she was alive. She wanted to evoke memories of her daughter’s vivaciousness and exuberance, rather than the peaceful but solemn one of Ria, depicted by Klimt as she lay on her death bed and so, according to Erich Lederer, Serena Lederer’s son, Klimt was again commissioned to paint a second portrait of Ria. In 1913, Aranka gave Klimt some more photographs of her daughter and asked him for another portrait, one that would encapsulate her beauty and her joie de vivre.
There are some questions about this second portrait that remain unanswered. The one fact we do know was whatever the artist gave Aranka, she rejected it. Why did she reject it? Was the painting above the one Klimt handed over to Aranka Munk? If we look at the painting which bears the title Ria Munk II, then it is not difficult to see why a mother would be horrified and subsequently reject such a semi-naked portrait of her late daughter. However we are not sure that the portrait we see before us was the painting Klimt gave her, in fact we can almost be certain that it was not. Would Klimt really believe that a grieving mother would welcome such a semi-nude depiction of her daughter? Although we have no way of knowing what Klimt’s second portrait of Ria Munk, which he gave to Aranka looked like, what we do know is that it was rejected by her. Another fact we know about this second commission from Ria’s mother was that Klimt struggled with it. We know this from a postcard he sent to his life-long friend, the Viennese fashion designer Emilie Flöge, in 1913. He wrote of his problem with the commission:
“…the Munk portrait… wouldn’t come together! Can’t make it a likeness!…”
Following Aranka’s rejection of the painting, Klimt took it back to his studio, and altered it. The altered and finished version is more erotic and depicts a bare-breasted portrait of a dancer. It is now beleived that the dancer could have been Johanna Jusl, who was not only a dancer with the Vienna Hofoper but was also one of Klimt’s models.His amended version, which we see above, depicts a lady, bare-breasted and exuding an overt sensuality, which one presumes would not have been present in the painting he offered Aranka Munk. She stands in a full-frontal pose but her head is coyly turned away. Her cheeks have a faint rose tinge to them. The elongated horizontal shape of her eyes gives her an oriental look. There is a delicate tinge of light blue on her face and neck which confers upon her a ghost-like appearance. Next to her is a table upon which there is a vase of poppies. Behind her, to the right, there is a vast floral display whilst in the left of the work we see oriental figures portrayed on a green background. Her highly colourful and garish patterned dress, which is open to her waist exposing her breasts, seems to become one with the background. Below the hem of the dress we catch sight of lace-edged black pantaloons below which we see her shapely white-stocking legs and high-heeled shoes with their decorative bows. There is a definite oriental-feel to this work and we know Klimt was fascinated by orientalism. In Frank Whitford’s 1990 book, Klimt, he tells the story of a young aspiring artist, Egon Schiele, visiting Klimt’s studio in the Vienna district of Heitzing and how Schiele describes the studio as being dominated by Far Eastern Art and artefacts as well as Japanese woodblock prints. Klimt had also a large collection of kimonos, a large red Japanese suit of armour and a number of exquisite Chinese costumes. So was Klimt’s love of orientalism unusual? In 1923, Anton Faistauer, a Viennese painter wrote a book entitled ‘Neue Malerei in Osterreich’ and in it he discussed Klimt and orientalism, he wrote:
“…for Europeans Klimt is an outsider… (and) it would be better not to compare him at all to western ways. He is incomprehensible to the West, to the French and Germans, and his art, for now, is rejected there… He is conceivable only in Vienna, better still in Budapest or Constantinople. His spirit is entirely oriental. Eroticism plays a dominant role in his art, and his taste for women is rather Turkish… He is inspired by the decorations of Persian vases and oriental carpets, and especially delights in the gold and silver of his canvases…”
The work, with the title Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) – The Dancer (Ria Munk II), the title originating from Erich Lederer, remained in Klimt’s studio and he never sold it. It is now part of thecollection of the Neue Galerie in New York.
The third portrait of Ria Munk, entitled Frauenbildnis ( Ria Munk III), which Klimt began around 1917, was one of the largest and greatest full-length female portraits by him. It was, like a number of Klimt’s later works found in his studio, unfinished, when he died in February 1918. The woman in the painting, with her pink cheeks and dark eyes is standing sideways on but is turning to face us, the viewer. Unlike the previous portrait, there is demureness in the way she holds her robe closed. She seems totally at ease. There is an aura of self-confidence about the young lady. She proffers us a dreamy smile. There is no hint of seductiveness about her expression that we saw in the earlier portrait. As was the case in many of his earlier full length female portraits of women from Vienna’s high society such as Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II (1912), Portrait of Eugenia (Mäda) Primavesi (c.1914) and Friedericke Maria Beer (1916), he once again morphs his subject into a highly colourful and decorative background. The background of this work consists of a multitude of flowers such as roses and tulips, floral patterns and oriental-looking designs. The painting is incomplete, especially with regards the dress and the foreground, which we see are just traces of the charcoal preliminary sketch.
Shortly after Klimt’s death, and because her daughter’s portrait had been commissioned by Aranka Munk, it was given to her. Aranka, who had divorced her husband in 1913, was now living in the summer at her lakeside villa at Bad Aussee in the Austrian state of Styria and it was here that she kept this third portrait of her daughter Ria. It remained there until 1941. Aranka, being Jewish, was then forced to sell part of the property to neighbours in 1941. The Gestapo later seized her remaining property, and her apartment in Vienna, in 1942. Aranka was deported to Lodz in German-occupied Poland in October 1941 and was put to death on November 26th, a day before her 79th birthday. Her daughter, Lola, was also sent to a concentration camp, at Chelmno, Poland, where she died in September 1942.
The year the villa and its contents were seized by the National Socialists, the Frauenbildnis ( Ria Munk III), portrait passed into the hands of the art collector and dealer William Gurlitt. In 1953 the Frauenbildnis painting was among a number of important paintings that Gurlitt sold to the Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz, which in 2003 became known as the Lentos Museum. The painting subsequently remained in the Lentos Museum, Linz until June 2009. It was then, after years of legal challenges that Linz city council finally voted to return the Klimt painting to its rightful owners and it was thus given up by the Lentos Museum to Aranka Munk’s descendents, who were living in Europe and America. The following year, June 2010, the descendents put the work in Christie’s London auction where it sold for £18.8 million.
Whilst I was working on this blog news broke out about a $1 billion art hoard discovery at a Munich apartment of an 80-year-old recluse, Cornelius Gurlitt.