The Entry of Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg into Basle,1273 by Franz Pforr

The Entry of Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg into Basle, 1273 by Franz Pforr (1809)

In my last blog I looked at a painting by Johann Friedrich Overbeck entitled The Painter Franz Pforr, which was a friendship portrait he did of his good friend and fellow Nazarene, Franz Pforr.  Today I am switching my attention to Franz Pforr himself and looking at one of his most famous works.

Franz Pforr was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1788, a year before the birth of Friedrich Overbeck.  He came from an artistic background with his father, Johann Georg Pforr, who had started his working life as a miner but due to a serious accident in the mines turned his attention to art and originally worked as a porcelain painter before concentrating his efforts as a landscape artist and skilled painter of horses.  Franz Pforr’s uncle, Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Younger, a great friend of the writer Goethe, was part of the great Tischbein artistic dynasty and an art professor at the Kassel Academy of Art.

Franz Pforr received his initial art tuition from his father an uncle before, like Overbeck, attending the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna (Vienna Academy of Fine Arts) in 1805.  During the war between Austrian and France in 1805, Pforr volunteered as a guard in the Viennese militia.   The conflict affected the young artist’s health and he suffered a nervous breakdown, and would suffer from bouts of depression for the rest of his life.  It was probably during these mental upheavals that Pforr turned to religion using it as a crutch to see him through his mental torment.   In 1806 he returned to the Academy and resumed his academic studies and for a time saw himself as war artist, recording famous battles on canvas.

The Academy director at the time was Heinrich Füger who believed the art course should concentrate on the Neo-Classicisal style of painting.  Pforr, like Overbeck, was very disillusioned with the Academy’s artistic tuition and its lack of spirituality and so, in response to this, the two twenty year-old aspiring artists formed the Lucasbund, or Brotherhood of St. Luke (St Luke was the traditional patron saint of artists), deliberately recalling the guilds and the trade organizations of the late Middle Ages.   When Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops entered the city in 1809 the Academy was closed down.  The following year, 1810, along with Overbeck, Ludwig Vogel and Johann Hottinger, members of their Lucasbund, Franz Pforr moved to Rome and set up home at the deserted Sant’ Isidoro monastery.  They began to wear their hair long, and wore anachronistic medieval monk-like habits. The members of the group took vows of poverty and chastity almost as if they saw their group not simply as an artistic association but a religious one.   They still referred to themselves as the Brotherhood of Saint Luke but because of the way they look and acted most everyone else called them the “Nazarenes”.  The agenda of the Nazarenes was to reject the whole legacy of Baroque and Neoclassical art that was the dominating art of the day.  These young German artists sought inspiration in Italian painters of the early Renaissance, such as Raphael Sanzio as well as the German art of Albrecht Dürer who were to be their artistic benchmarks. Most of all they wanted their art to have a sense of spirituality.  They wanted it to be more honest, truthful, and sincere art similar to that of the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance.  The subjects of their works of art were dominated by religious themes.

The Nazarenes disbanded in 1820 but for Franz Pforr his life with the group ended eight years earlier as he contracted tuberculosis and died in Albano Laziale, a suburb of Rome, in 1812.

The artwork of Franz Pforr calls to mind a sort of fairy-tale medievalism, awash with bright colours and picturesque details.  This can be seen in today’s featured painting by Pforr which he completed before he travelled to Rome, entitled The Entry of Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg into Basle, 1273.

This large medieval subject is consciously painted in a historical manner.  The subject of the painting is the entry into Basle of Rudolf of Habsburg and it is a pictorial tale of German pride and the country’s defiance of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Rudolf, who had inherited his father’s estates in the Alsace region, had also forcefully taken possession of the cities of Strasbourg and Basle and vast tracts of land in the western part of Switzerland.  It was in 1273, as he was laying siege to the Swiss city of Basle, that he heard that he had been elected to become the new German king by the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire,.  He would be crowned Rudolph I in Aachen cathedral in October of that year.    If we look to the horseback rider just left of centre we can see the black double-headed Habsburg eagle emblazoned on the back of his gold-coloured jacket.  The inclusion of this Habsburg eagle was thought to be Franz Pforr’s idea of defiance against Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been at war with the Germans and had occupied Pforr’s home town, Frankfurt in 1805.   Pforr was also affected again by Napoleon Bonaparte in May 1809 for he was a student at the Vienna Academy when Napoleon entered and occupied the city and the art establishment was closed down.

Self portrait of Franz Pforr

Another interesting aspect of Pforr’s painting is the way he has included himself in the scene as part of Rudolph’s entourage.  We see him on horseback riding some way behind the king.  He is the young man, wearing a black beret, and has turned in the saddle and is looking his over his shoulder at something happening at the rear of the procession.  In Cordula Grewe’s 2009 book entitled Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romaniticism she writes about how the Nazarene artists would often identify with their subjects and by doing so somehow identify with their own situation.  She goes on to talk about the interpretation of Pforr’s inclusion of himself saying:

“…Pforr’s mixture reflects the Nazarenes’ general obsession with temporality, as it serves to fold biblical into post-biblical time and, further differentiating the play of temporalities, to forge a link between medieval past and actual present. Pforr’s self-portrait marks the intersection of these various time axes.  His horse carries him forward in Rudolf’s wake… on his way towards the procession’s final destination, the town’s medieval cathedral.   Yet, while Pforr’s body moves towards a moment of historical completion, his gaze disengages with this view into the glorified but lost past of perfect piety.  As the only figure looking backwards, he gazes towards the right, fixing his eyes upon a point beyond the picture frame.  Pforr looks into the future.  In him, the picture’s two central aspects converge: his gaze unites the insight into God’s order (typology) with an understanding of the moral lessons that can be learned from history (a history past and yet available through the archetype)…”

Before us we see flattened perspectives.  The figures in the painting, in some ways, look uncoordinated often with head and shoulders portrayed at impossible and unrealistic angles.  There is almost a child-like innocence about the painting.   It is indeed a colourful painting but the colours are of a slightly muted and weak nature as was the case in many of the Nazarene works of art.   There is not the vibrancy and brightness of the colours used by the artists of the English nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was greatly influenced by the art of the Nazarenes.

Der Maler Pforr (The Painter Franz Pforr) by Johann Friedrich Overbeck.

Der Maler Pforr (The Painter Franz Pforr)
by Johann Friedrich Overbeck.

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.