On a number of occasions whilst talking about the life of a nineteenth century artist I have recounted how they had been in Rome to further their artistic careers and had come across a group of German artists known as the Nazarenes. Today I am featuring one of the leading members of this group, the German painter, Johann Friedrich Overbeck.
Overbeck was born in Lubeck in 1789. He was brought up in a very religious and also a very wealthy household. His ancestors for three generations had been Protestant pastors. His parents were Elisabeth Lang and Christian Adolph Overbeck, who was a doctor of law, and who was also a Lubeck senator. In 1814 he actually became the burgomaster (mayor)of his home town. Johann Oberbeck’s early schooling was at the nearby grammar school where his uncle was the master. Overbeck studied the classics and received artistic tuition whilst attending this school. At the age of seventeen, having completed his schooling, Overbeck left his home town and went to Vienna where he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, which at the time was run by German portraitist and historical painter, Heinrich Füger.
Overbeck had mixed emotions about the training he received at the Academy. Although he received tuition in the technique of neoclassical art, he was disturbed by the themes of the paintings which had been chosen by his tutors. Overbeck had been brought up in a strict religious household and he felt that at the Academy there was a total lack of religious spirituality in the subjects he was asked to paint. In a letter to a friend he commented that he had fallen among a vulgar set and that every noble thought was suppressed within the academy and that he, losing all faith in humanity, had turned inward to his faith for inspiration. In a letter to his father about the tuition, the nineteen year old Overbeck wrote:
“…You get to paint an excellent drape, draw a correct figure, learning perspective, architecture, everything short – and yet comes out not a real painter. Lack one thing … heart, soul and emotion …“
Later he wrote about his disappointment with the lack of spirituality in the artistic training at the Academy and how he envisaged his future plans:
“…Oh! I was full of it; my whole fancy was possessed by Madonnas and Christs, but nowhere could I find response…………..I will abide by the Bible; I elect it as my standing-point…”
Overbeck, with his strong religious beliefs, believed that at this time in Europe, Christian art was in decline, and it was this very belief which was to shape his future artistic career. Overbeck continued at the Academie until 1809 but he constantly found it ever more difficult to accept the situation and became more vociferous in his condemnation of the artistic tuition offered by the establishment and soon the situation became irreconcilable. Whilst at the Academie he became close friends with Franz Pforr and together with Ludwig Vogel, Joseph Wintergerst, Joseph Sutter and Konrad Hottinger, all of who were similarly disillusioned with the artistic teaching at the Academie, they decided to take matters into their own hands. In June 1809 they formed an art association which they called the Brotherhood of St. Luke or Lukasbrüder. The decision as to whether to remain at the Academy was taken out of Overbeck’s hands as in 1809 Vienna was occupied by French troops and the artistic establishment was closed down. Later when it re-opened it could not take in “foreigners” and Overbeck and Pforr could not gain re-admission. Four of the members of the Lukasbrüder, Overbeck, Pforr, Hottinger and Vogelthen decided to head to Rome and in June 1810 they set up home in the empty monastery of Sant’ Isidoro, which had just been dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte . It was to become the home of the newly formed artists’ colony.
This newly assembled art group lived and worked with new recruits in their deserted monastery home and because of the way they dressed similar to monks and because of their long flowing hair, they were known as the Nazarenes. The group led a quasi-monastic lifestyle. The ethos of the group was based on fraternity and a frugal lifestyle. The principle of their art was that it should be both simple and sincere, which was at odds with the academic principles of their time. There was a sobriety in the way they chose colours for their paintings. Overbeck and his group fervently believed that art was a divine mission.
Sadly two years after arriving at Sant’ Isidoro, Franz Pforr died of tuberculosis. He was just twenty-four years of age. My Daily Art Display today features a friendship portrait by Johann Overbeck of his fellow artist Franz Pforr, which he completed in 1810, around the time the pair arrived in Rome. The painting is entitled Der Maler Pforr (The Painter Franz Pforr). The painting is housed in the Staatliche Museen of Berlin but is currently on display at the Tate Britain, London, as part of the Pre-Raphaelites Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition.
The Nazarene artists often painted quasi-devotional portraits of each other and in some of the paintings they would include what they considered would be their choice of an ideal wife for their friend and this is exactly what Overbeck has done for his friend Franz Pforr. There was also a great deal of religious symbolism in these works. Franz Pforr had been a very close friend of Overbeck since their days at the Vienna Academy and it was he who had encouraged Overbeck into studying the work of the German Masters, such as Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach. There is a typical German feel to this work by Overbeck and maybe in a way it was a testament to the help and guidance Pforr had offered him.
Before us we see a young-looking Franz Pforr, who is not wearing nineteenth century clothing but instead is dressed in a typical German costume of the late 16th century. He is sitting at a gothic loggia and, through the opening behind him, we can see a typical German townscape with a tall-spired church. Further back, behind the town there is what appears to be a coastal scene. To the left of the painting we see a woman busily sewing as she reads text from a book. She is the ideal wife whom Overbeck as “bequeathed” to his friend. She is both dutiful as shown by her sewing and religious by the way she reads from what is probably some religious text or the Bible. These are two characteristics, which no doubt both Overbeck and Pforr would look for in their “perfect” wives. Add to this the vase of white lilies, which has become the flower of the Virgin and symbolises purity and you have the perfect woman !
The vine we see to the right of the sitter’s head is a Biblical symbol which is often used to express the relationship between God and his people. The vine is looked upon as an emblem of Christ as the passage from John’s Gospel (John 15:verses 1 and 5)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…… I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…”
The falcon, which is tethered to its perch and is therefore a domestic bird, is in religious symbolism a representation of a holy man or a non-believer who has been converted to the Christian faith. Pforr has been portrayed with his left hand resting on the stone sill with the watchful cat at his elbow. There is a look of satisfaction in his face and maybe that is to reflect the inner peace he has achieved through religion.
This is a beautiful painting and the first one I came across when I visited the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain in London. The exhibition lasts until January 13th 2013 and then moves to the National Gallery in Washington (February 17th – May 19th 2013). If you like Pre-Raphaelite paintings then this exhibition is one you should not miss.