Bernardo Bellotto. Part 2.

Bernardo Bellotto.jpg
Detail of Self-portrait as Venetian ambassador

At the end of 1761 Bellotto returned to his home Dresden to find it had been devastated during the Prussian invasion.  Worse, was the fact that he found himself in great financial difficulty arising from the death of two of his major patrons, Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland and Count Heinrich Bruhl, the prime minister of Saxony in 1763. 

View of the Kreuzkirche in Ruins by Bellotto (1765)

Their deaths and his financial situation made Bellotto melancholic and it was around this time that he painted the Kreuzkirche which now lay in ruins.  It had been partially destroyed during the Seven Year War, at a time when Bellotto had been forced to flee the city.  The painting is entitled View of the Kreuzkirche in Ruins and was completed by Bellotto in 1765.  The Kreuzkirche is the oldest church in Dresden and, during the conflict, was shelled by Prussian artillery.   The building was set ablaze and finally collapsed. The church tower, though damaged, remained standing.  Work commenced on the reconstruction the church and it was decided to preserve the original tower. Unfortunately, in June 1765, with the construction of the new church already under way, the greater part of the tower collapsed.  The painting is a good example of how Bellotto unique, capacity to capture the spirit of an event.  His depiction of the ruin  is an unusual one for it is not an ancient ruin as far as the artist was concerned.  It was a relatively new one as the destruction had only occurred five years earlier.   Bellotto had completed a work depicting the great church some years earlier (see painting in the previous blog).   However, in this work, we see the jagged remnants of the church rear up skywards.   The cleanliness of the once beautiful church has gone.  There is nothing clean about the church now.   The scene before us is just a mass of noise and dirt.  It is a chaotic scene which we find hard to believe that it could ever be put back to its former glory.   The Church, as the body of Christ, has been violated all over again and the civic wounds of the German city have been violently opened for all to see.  This is the price to be paid when once we set forth to war.  In the painting we see many of Dresden citizens.  Close to the ruins we can just make out craftsmen as they start their preparations to rebuild the once –beautiful edifice.  On the periphery we see men and women dressed in their best clothes staring at the ruin.  For them it was just a day out to visit the site where the destruction had taken place.  For them it was just blatant voyeurism.

Dresden, the Ruins of the Pirnaische Vorstadt by Bellotto (1763)

Another melancholic landscape Bellotto painted around this time was his bleak depiction of the town where he used to live, Pirna, destroyed by Prussian artillery fire.

In the mid 1760’s there was a revival of classical antiquity in art and Bellotto turned to painting idealised views featuring classical motifs that he had once drawn when living in Venice and Rome. In 1764 the Dresden Academy of Fine Art was founded by order of the Prince-Elector Frederick Christian and at that time, Christian Ludwig von Hagerdorn was the Academy’s general director of the Saxon Art Collections.  Hagerdorn disliked Bellotto and by-passed him when he applied to become a professor of the Academy.  It could be the fact that Bellotto could not speak German which rankled him or maybe it was Bellotto’s style of painting as Hagerdorn once wrote of Bellotto:

“…He loses no opportunity of bringing up the subject of his dreary art and his enormous family…”

Dresden from the Neustädter Bridgehead, by Bellotto (1765)

Franz Xavier who had taken on the role of the regency of the Electorate of Saxony together with his sister-in-law, the Dowager Electress Maria Antonia of Bavaria intervened and Bellotto was admitted to the Academy and granted a three-year teaching post and given the title of “associate member for perspective”.  Belloto’s reception piece was his 1765 painting, Dresden from the Neustädter Bridgehead.

Architectural Capriccio with a Self-Portrait in the costume of a Venetian Nobleman by Bellotto (1765)

Bellotto took part in the Academy’s first exhibition on March 5th 1765.  He submitted four of his works, one of which was his painting entitled Architectural Capriccio with a Self-Portrait in the costume of a Venetian Nobleman.  It is an idealised setting incorporating a number of famous Venetian buildings including the Marciana Library.  The gentleman in the foreground wearing the red robes and a heavily embroidered sash on his left shoulder of a Venetian procurator is thought to be a self-portrait.  Look closely at the pillar behind the dignitary and you will see a handbill.  On it is a quotation by the Roman poet Horace:

Pictoribus atque poetis

Quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa postestas

which translates to:


Painters and poets have always shared an equal right to dare to do whatever they wanted.

One can only believe that Bellotto added this poster with the saying of Horace to remind people that it is correct to believe that anything is possible.

View of Warsaw from the Royal Palace by Bellotto (1773)

Bellotto was not happy at the Academy and found it harder and harder to work under Hagedorn and so, half way through his three year tenure he requested a leave of absence so that he could travel to St Petersburg. Russia at the time was ruled by Catherine the Great who was known for her support for foreign artists.  On his way to Saint Petersburg, however, Bellotto accepted an invitation in 1764 from Poland’s newly elected King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski to become one of his court painters in Warsaw. Poniatowski was an avid art collector who wanted to add to his collection. Bellotto wrote to the Dresden Academy asking for an extension to his leave of absence and once granted he summoned his wife and daughters to come and live in Warsaw. His wages as court painter managed to elevate him financially to his former status.

Ujazdów Castle, by Bellotto (“Canaletto”) about 1775

Bellotto started to work on his royal commission to provide a number of paintings depicting panoramic cityscapes of both Warsaw and Rome to be hung at the royal palace, the Ujazdów Castle, which was situated just outside the city and was, at that time, being refurbished.   The idea of having depictions of the two cities side by side was to infer that Warsaw was the “new Rome”.   He was allocated the large room on the ground floor of the castle for his large works.  However, the refurbishments met with financial problems and the work was eventually abandoned, and in 1777, Bellotto’s paintings were moved to the Royal Castle in Warsaw.   As Bellotto painted more views of Warsaw, they took the place of some of the paintings depicting Rome.  His paintings were hung in the antechamber outside the Throne Room and were visible to the ambassadors and other dignitaries who had come for an audience with the king.  The room became known as the Canaletto Room and Bellotto’s paintings today are still to be seen in that room.

Views of Warsaw from the Suburbs of Praga by Bellotto (1770)

In its place at the centre of the south wall of the antechamber is Bellotto’s masterpiece, View of Warsaw from the Suburb of Praga.

The artist at work

It is an all-encompassing panoramic view of Warsaw which also incorporates a self-portrait of the artist sitting at his easel in the far left foreground.

Miodowa Street by Bellotto (1777)

Bellotto remained in Warsaw for sixteen years and died suddenly from a stroke in the city on November 17th, 1780 at the age of 59.  He was buried in the Capuchin Church at Miodowa Street. The street was the subject of his 1777 painting and the church where he was buried can be seen in the left background emerging from behind the trees. Bellotto’s wife, Elisabetta, died five years later and their daughter Theresia Francisca left the city with her husband and hundreds of her father’s paintings and went to live in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Bellotto completed more than three hundred paintings, about a third of which were cityscapes which glorified some of the great capitals of Europe.  The paintings were highly original but always managed to meet with the social and political demands of his patrons.

Crossing at the Schreckenstein by Ludwig Richter

Crossing at the Schreckenstein by Ludwig Richter (1836)

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 harp player

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.

The Ferryman

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.