The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johan Zoffany

The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany (1772-77)

Johan Zoffany was born Johannes Josephus Zoffaly in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1733.  His father Anton Zoffaly was a court cabinet maker and architect to Alexander Ferdinand, Prince of Thurn and Taxis and it was at the Prince’s court that young Johan was brought up.  When the Prince took up residence in Regensburg, Zoffany served as an apprentice to the local painter, Martin Speer.  In 1750, at the age of 17 when he had completed his apprenticeship Johann travelled to Rome and studied with the portrait painter, Agostino Masucci.  In 1757, now back in Germany, Zoffany was commissioned by the Elector of Trier to paint frescoes and paintings for his new palace at Trier and his Ehrenbreitstein Palace in Koblenz.

In 1760 Zoffany travelled to London.  Here he was initially employed by Benjamin Wilson, the painter and printmaker and it was from his connection with Wilson that Zoffany came to the attention of one of Wilson’s patrons, the actor and theatre impresario, David Garrick, and he commissioned Zoffany to paint a number of theatrical works which featured the actor in famous theatrical roles.  Garrick also had Zoffany paint some conversation pieces of he and his wife set in the grounds of his Hampton estates.  The term Conversation Piece is an informal group portrait, often full length but usually small in scale in a domestic interior or garden setting and was a very popular art genre in 18th century England.   They would often portray a group of people apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity.  Usually the group would be members of a family, but sometimes friends would be included.  In some conversation pieces groups of friends or members of a society were depicted.  It was for these works that Zoffany made his name in England.

Zoffany’s fame spread among the London elite and commissions started to roll in for his portraiture and conversation pieces.  One such commission came from the Prime Minister, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, who wanted Zoffany to paint portraits of his three sons and another portrait of his three daughters.  It was thanks to Bute that Zoffany was introduced to King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte in 1763.  Both were impressed by his work and commissioned Zoffany to paint portraits of their family.  The Royal Academy of Arts had been founded in December 1768 through a personal act of King George III.  Its task was to promote the arts of design in Britain through education and exhibition.  There were originally thirty four founder members, with Sir Joshua Reynolds its first President.  The rules stated that there would be forty Academicians.  In a Council of the Royal Academy in November 1769 it was reported to those present that “his Majesty had been pleased to appoint Mr Johan Zoffany to be one of the forty Academicians”.  Zoffany was now a Nominated Member of the Academy.

The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy by Johan Zoffany (1771-2)

George III also set him a task to paint a group portrait of the Royal Academy members which Zoffany duly completed in 1772 and was entitled The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy.  Zoffany himself is seen with brush and palette in his hand at the far left of the painting.  The king and his wife were delighted with the painting and Queen Charlotte commissioned Zoffany to paint an even larger and more elaborate conversation piece set in the Tribuna of the Uffizi, which would depict the art treasures held within the octagonal room.   Zoffany travelled to Italy to carry out the commission in 1772 and did not complete the ambitious work until 1777.

Zoffany returned to England with his masterpiece but was distressed to find that his genre of conversation pieces had gone out of vogue and his work was no longer required by his wealthy and fashionable clients.  He could have reverted to his other artistic forte, that of portraiture, but at the time he had many very successful rivals for that type of work, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds as well as the emerging “new kid on the bloc” George Romney.

By 1783 Zoffany had all but given up hope of receiving commissions for his work in England and decided to travel to India in his search for rich patrons.   For the next six years Zoffany bided his time in the sub-continent travelling between Calcutta and Lucknow completing commissions he received from the wealthy British colonials and the local Lucknow aristocracy.  Once again he had the opportunity to carry on with his beloved conversation pieces.  Such was the popularity of his work that he was inundated with commissions and by the time he returned to England in 1789 he had made his fortune.

Zoffany died in 1810, aged 77.  He was one of the greatest exponents of the English Conversation piece with its Rococo flamboyance and will also be remembered for the charm of his theatrical works depicting scenes from popular plays of the day.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today by Zoffany is looked upon as one of his greatest works.  It is his grand conversation piece entitled The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which he started in 1772 and completed in 1777.   Going to Italy at the behest of his Royal patrons, George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, to paint this work had not been his original plan as in 1772 he had hoped to secure a passage on Captain Cook’s vessel when he set sail on his second voyage to the South Seas but the offer of a sea voyage never materialised and so he took up the commission from Queen Charlotte to travel to Florence and record in a painting the collection of art and sculpture which the Grand Duke of Tuscany had put together in the Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Queen Charlotte had envisaged this work would be a pendant to Zoffany’s earlier work owned by the English rulers entitled Academicians of the Royal Academy which he completed in 1772 and was well received by the royal family.

The Tribuna was an octagonal room within the Uffizi Gallery, designed in the late 1580’s by Bernardo Buontalenti in which the art collection of Francesco de’ Medici would be housed.  In 1737 it came into the possession of Pietro Leopoldo, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The commission was a great challenge to the talents of Zoffany as the Tribuna art collection was one of the greatest in all Europe.  Was it a true reproduction of what was there at the time?   Not quite, as Zoffany had to experiment and alter the perspective of the room in order to incorporate all the various pieces of sculpture and in some cases he had to reduce the size of individual pieces.  The collection of art in the Tribuna during the time Zoffany was painting it was also going through a slight reorganisation and this gave him the excuse to make his own decision as to what would be on display.   In doing so he omitted some paintings which were actually on display and added others which although housed in the Uffizi were never hung in the Tribuna.  One of these was Titian’s Venus of Urbino which we see in the central foreground.  There were also a number of paintings by Guido Reni which were housed in the Pitti Palace but were transported to the Uffizi just for Zoffany to copy!

There are twenty five paintings shown in this work.  How many can you identify?   All I will tell you is that amongst them there are six by Raphael, three by Guido Reni, two by Titian, two by Rubens and one each by Carracci, Corregio and Holbein.

Besides the works of art, sculptures and other artefacts, the painting is populated by no fewer than twenty two men all of whom were either connected with the Uffizi Gallery or were a miscellany of Grand Tourists.  So who were these Grand Tourists and what was the Grand Tour?  The Grand Tour was the traditional trip around Europe taken by mainly upper-class wealthy young European men, although primarily the term is associated with the British elite and nobility.   It reached the height of its popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and it was a kind of rite of passage for this wealthy elite.   One amusing aspect of Zoffany’s inclusion of the men was that during the many years he worked on the painting he would add and remove people as he saw fit and would tell some of the travellers they had to sit for him as the George III had specifically asked for their portrait to be included.  Of course that was never the case.  The one thing Zoffany was adamant about was that he would not portray a woman within the group.  It is thought that this could be due to the fact that he incorporated some lewd visual jokes into the painting.   Look at the group of men to the right who are staring at and fascinated by the backside of the Venus de Medici.  This sculpture had been well-known for the lewd comments made about it by the Grand Tourists.  In Vicci Coltman’s book entitled Classical Sculpture and the Culture of Collecting in Britain since 1760 she quotes a comment made by Charles Townley, the English country gentleman and antiquary who had made a couple of Grand Tours whilst Zoffany was painting his masterpiece.  Townley had said that he had been told that:

“…the sight of the Venus in the Florence Gallery will give you some yammering after a Tuscan Whore…”

It was not just the heterosexual innuendos that made Zoffany’s painting risqué, but his addition of two well known homosexuals, Thomas Patch, in the right foreground in conversation with another homosexual, Sir Horace Mann.  Patch is pointing at the sculpture The Wrestlers and their addition in the painting was to prove a step too far.

Zoffany returned to England in 1779 and delivered the painting to his royal patrons.   Queen Charlotte was horrified to see the room cluttered by so many men and worse still to incorporate lewd innuendos of both a heterosexual and homosexual nature.  She was especially shocked that Zoffany had included portraits of the two infamous homosexuals into the scene.  George III reluctantly paid for the work but had it placed out of sight in a room in Kew Palace.  The artist Joseph Farrington was active in the social, cultural, and professional art world of his time and he kept a daily diary from 13 July 1793 until his death, missing only a few days. This diary often referred to the London art world. The diary eventually constituted 16 volumes and in one of the volumes Farrington recounts a conversation between George III and the artist William Beechey in which he quotes the king as saying of Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi:

“…[The King] expressed wonder at Zoffany having done so improper a thing as to introduce the portraits of Sir Horace Man[n], [Thomas] Patch, & others, who were considered as men addicted to improper practices – He sd. The Queen wd. Not suffer the picture to be placed in any of Her apartments…”

It is thought it was not so much that Zoffany took it upon himself to add the twenty two Grand Tourists into the painting but it was the character of some of them that shocked and offended George III and his Queen.  Zoffany never again received a royal commission and from that day on lost their patronage.

This is a beautiful work and one of unbelievable detail.  I stood before it yesterday when I visited the preview of the Johan Zoffany RA, Society Observed exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.  If you are in London you should make a point on visiting this exhibition which runs until June 10th.

Tomorrow I will give you the answer to the names of the paintings and the artists who painted them

The Night by Max Beckmann

The Night by Max Beckmann (1918-19)

Today I am exploring the unusual world of Expressionism, to be more precise, German Expressionism, and will be looking at a painting entitled The Night by the German artist Max Beckmann, who was one of the most important German painters of the 20th century.  Beckmann has always been compartmentalised as an Expressionist painter but he himself, railed against that tag.

Expressionism materialized in different artistic circles across Europe but its zenith was the period between 1905 and 1920.  Expressionism as a general term refers to art in which the image of reality is more or less heavily distorted in formand colour in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas about it.  In expressionist art the colours used were often strong and highly intense and often non-naturalistic.  The brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured.  Expressionist art inclined to be poignant and sometimes had mystical qualities.  It would often look at themes of belonging and alienation.  In some ways Expressionism was the art of unrest and the search for truth.  The German Expressionists were loosely gathered in two groups.  One was called Die Brücke (The Bridge) and the other was Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).  There are numerous well known artists who could be looked upon as Expressionist artists.  The ones who come to mind are Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch, Wassiliy Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Beckmann just to mention a few.

Max Beckmann was born in Leipzig in 1884, the youngest of three children.  His family were of a middle-class background.  His father was a grain merchant but died when Max was just ten years of age.  He received a thorough education and spent several years at a boarding school.  At the age of fifteen and despite family objections, he decided on an artistic career and applied to the Königliche Akademie in Dresden but failed the entrance exam.  In 1900, aged sixteen years of age, his artistic studies finally began with his enrolment at the Weimar Saxon-Grand Ducal Art School for a three-year course and it was here that he learned to draw from antique statues and eventually progressed to human models.  It was also at the Academy that he met fellow art student, Minna Tube, whom he married three years later.  They went on to have a son, Peter.  After the course ended in 1903 he went to Paris where he studied at the private Académie Colarossi, which was an alternative art institution to the government-sanctioned École des Beaux-Arts that had, in the eyes of many promising young artists at the time, become far too conservative.  In 1906, he was in Florence financed by winning the German art prize, the Villa Romana Prize and it was in this Italian city he was able to study the works of the great Masters.  The following year, he moved to Berlin and three years later in 1907 he participated in the Berlin Secession, which was the predominant voice of modern German painting.  The term Secession, which came from the Latin secessio plebis (the revolt of the plebeians against the patricians) was the term applied to groups of artists who secede from academic bodies or associations in protest at the constraints.  The three main Secessions were those of Berlin, Munich and Vienna.   The Berlin Secession was founded by Berlin artists in 1898 as an alternative to the conservative state-run Association of Berlin Artists.

Beckmann’s paintings from this period are characterized by the legacy of Impressionism, with landscapes and beach scenes painted with stippled brushstrokes which evoked the play of light across shapes. He was held in such high regard by his colleagues that, in 1910, he was elected to the executive board of the Secession and was the youngest member ever to achieve such a distinction. However because he preferred painting to policy making, he resigned the following year in order to devote himself full-time to his art work. Conflict within the Berlin Secession eventually led to a further schism in 1910 and the new group called itself the Neue Secession (New Secession). In 1914 the rejection of works by some members of the Berlin Secession again led to further disagreements and several artists, including Beckmann left the Berlin Secession to found the Berlin Freie Secession (Berlin Free Secession), which existed until 1924.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Beckmann volunteered as a medical orderly and served time on the Belgium front. Before the onset of war, he, like many other Germans, rationalized the necessity of war and believed in their countries aims.  He believed war could cleanse the individual and society. However, after experiencing day after day the widespread destruction and horrors of the war, he became disillusioned with the conflict and rejected the glory of military service.  In 1915 the dreadfulness of what he witnessed took its toll on him and he suffered a nervous breakdown and was moved to Belgium and later Frankfurt.

Following World War I, his work changed radically in reaction to the horrors he had witnessed. Initially he focused on biblical scenes, but during the 1920s he created more contemporary allegories and painted devastatingly realistic portraits and figure paintings associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) group, with whom he exhibited in 1925, but never formally joined.  He now rejected traditional perspective and proportion creating taut, airless pictorial structure of space and planes with an absence of bright colour and thick brushstrokes of Expressionism.   He saw the world as a tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man and saw life as a carnival of human folly.   In 1925 his marriage to Minna Tube, which had slowly been unravelling, came to an end and the couple were divorced.  That same year he married his second wife, Mathilde von Kaulbach and he was appointed professor at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.

In 1933 the Nazis came to power and Beckmann was declared a “degenerate artist”.  He was dismissed from his post at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and a ban was placed on all his exhibitions.  All his works in German museums were confiscated.  The Nazi art policy at the time applied to everything that did not conform to Nazi goals.  It was their battle against what they termed überfremdung (foreign infiltration).  He moved from Frankfurt to Berlin where he believed due to its size and large population he could become more anonymous.  In 1937 he moved to Amsterdam where he lived in poverty in self-imposed exile failing in his desperate attempts to obtain a visa for the US.  He remained there until 1948 at which time he was finally granted a US visa.    From there he and his wife moved to the USA and he took up a post at the School of Fine Arts, Washington University in St Louis.  Later he moved to New York where he was given a professorship at the Art School of Brooklyn Museum.

Max Beckmann died of a heart attack whilst out walking in Manhattan, the day after Boxing Day in 1950.  He was aged 66.  His wife, Mathilde, died six years later.

My featured painting today entitled The Night was painted by Max Beckmann during 1918 and 1919.    It is housed at the Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf.   This is an early example of Beckmann’s grotesque and appalling visionary paintings with its misshapen figures. Before us we have an overcrowded room in a modern city.  Beckman himself said he wanted this work to be looked upon as a large modern history painting tinged with a sense of evil. Three men have invaded the room and are terrorising the occupants.  The man to the left has been hung by the neck by one of the intruders while a man with a bandaged head, wearing waistcoat and tie and smoking a pipe, twists his arm.   Two women can also be seen in the scene.  One, in the central foreground with her back to us, possibly the man’s wife, wears red stockings and is bound to a post after having been raped.   The second woman whose feet we can just make out at the top right of the painting, is held upside down by a man whose hat resembles the type worn by Lenin. To the right a blonde-haired child is about to be dragged off.  Under the table we see an old phonograph, the sound from which may have been used to blot out the cries from those being tortured.  Also partly under the table on the left we see a dog whose head is raised as he howls for help.  This is a scene of urban hell, an unfathomable and vile scene.

In his book Max Beckmann, Stephen Lackner commented on this work saying:

“… Beckmann sees no purpose in the suffering he shows; there is no glory for anybody, no compensation, … Beckmann blames human nature as such, and there seems to be no physical escape from this overwhelming self-accusation. Victims and aggressors alike are cornered. There is no exit…”

Maybe, one should remember that 1918 was  the time of the German November Revolution which resulted in the replacement of Germany’s imperial government with a republic and which unleashed tremendous savagery and terror across the country.  In 1919 there followed a general strike which was brutally put down by the authorities.  Maybe in some way Beckmann, in his painting, was alluding to such horrors perpetrated by mankind on mankind.  I find it very hard to fathom the state of the artist’s mind when he was painting this work.  Had he personally suffered so much mentally and lost all hope in humanity to depict such violence?

Ideal Landscape near Rocca Canterana by Carl Philipp Fohr

Ideal Landscape near Rocca Canterana by Carl Philipp Fohr

My Daily Art Display today looks again at a German painter who was born at the end of the 18th century and is acknowledged as one of the most significant landscape painters of German Romanticism.  His name is Carl Philipp Fohr.

Fohr was born in Heidelberg in 1795.   His first art tuition was under the tutelage of Carl Rottmann, the genre and veduta painter, when he was aged thirteen.  It is said that when Fohr was fifteen years old the Darmstadt Court Councillor, Georg Wilhelm Issel, discovered him sketching at Stift Neuberg near Heidelberg and it was because of that and because Issel recognised the young man’s artistic potential, the following year Issel invited Fohr to come to Darmstadt and he provided him with both encouragement and financial support to continue with his artistic studies.   From 1813 Fohr received a number of commissions for paintings for the Grand Duchess Wilhelmina of Hesse, and it was for her that Fohr produced the Sketchbook of the Neckar Region, which consisted of a collection of watercolours of views and historical subjects of the region and a year later produced a similar sketchbook of the Baden area.  Such was the quality of his work that Fohr received an annual pension of 500 guilders from the Grand Princess. 

In 1815 Fohr became a student of landscape painting at the Kunstakademie in Munich, and it was here that his breakthrough into an independent and original drawing style came about.   He only remained at the Academy for a year as in 1816 he decided to embark on a walking adventure through Northern Italy which was to eventually take him to Rome.   It was whilst there that he came in contact with the group of artists, known as the Nazarene Brotherhood.  The brotherhood’s original members were six Vienna Academy students, four of whom, Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, Ludwig Vogel, and Johann Konrad Hottinger, moved to Rome in 1810, where they occupied the abandoned monastery of Sant’Isidoro.   Later they were joined by Peter von Cornelius, Wilhelm von Schadow, and others who at various times were associated with the movement.   The Nazarenes believed that all art should serve a moral or religious purpose; they admired painters of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and rejected most subsequent painting which were beloved by the European academies, believing that it abandoned religious ideals in favour of artistic virtuosity. They also thought that the mechanical routine of the academy system could be avoided by a return to the more intimate teaching situation of the medieval workshop.   For this reason, they worked and lived together in an almost monastic existence.    So where did the name, Nazarenes, come from?   Actually it was a derisory nickname they acquired because of their affectation of biblical style of hair and dress. The main aim of the Nazarenes was to revive the medieval art of fresco painting.   Fortune looked down favourably on the group as they received two important commissions to carry out the fresco decoration of the Casa Bartholdy in 1816 and a year later to carry out similar work in the Casino Massimo in Rome and their beautifully skilled work on the two projects brought their work to international attention.   However by the time the second project had been completed the Nazarene Brotherhood had all but disbanded.  The legacy of this group was that of honest expression of deeply felt ideals and it was to have an important influence on subsequent movements, particularly the English Pre-Raphaelites of the mid-19th century.

So where did Fohr go next for inspiration?   Sadly, Fohr’s life ended in tragic circumstances when in 1818, at the young age of twenty-three he drowned whilst swimming in the River Tiber.  Even sadder was the fact that his legacy to the world was only five oil paintings.

Today’s featured painting is The Ideal Landscape near Rocca Canterana and is one of Fohr’s best-known paintings, which he completed in 1818, the year of his death.   The painting shows a rocky pastoral landscape in the central mountains of Italy.  In the foreground, we can see a path which winds past craggy rocks and old, gnarled trees.   On this path we see a country girl dressed in some sort of festive costume.  In her arms she carries a young child, whilst hand in hand with another child, who is balancing a jug on her head.   If you look to the right middle-ground, under the trees, we can see a group of pilgrims who are heading towards a distant and illuminated valley.  The woman and children have just been passed by two shepherds who are heading for what Fohr has depicted as a peaceful, hilly region rimmed by steep mountains.

This painting is so like the old Arcadian landscape paintings of the past, which emerged in the Renaissance and which were inspirational to later artists who wanted to depict a “paradise on earth” theme to their works.  Fohr’ paradise on earth is emphasised by his inclusion of the pilgrims which alludes to the Christian Heaven.   The people in Fohr’s painting, who we see wandering around the landscape symbolise the journey we have to make on this earth before we die and  Fohr, in a way, is trying to remind us of the transience of all earthly things and the journey into the future, which some believe is the true goal and reason for human existence.

The picture in some ways is very simplistic but I hope you like it.

Die Teufelsbrücke or the Devil’s Bridge by Karl Blechen

Pont Valentré at Cahors

I will start My Daily Art Display today with a look at a local folklore that of the Devil’s Bridge.  Like most folklore there is not simply one version of the tale but many different versions of it depending on which country the structure is situated.   The first time I came across this phenomenon was when I visited Cahors in France and went to see the spectacular 14th century Pont Valentré Bridge.

The Devil clinging to one of the towers of the Pont Valentré

Built in 1308 and completed seventy years later it became associated with the legend of the Devil’s Bridge and the architect Paul Gout made reference to this by placing a small sculpture of the devil at the summit of one of the towers.

The folklore of the Devil’s Bridge is all about the Devil, a bridge builder and his bridge.  The main gist of the story is that a bridge builder sets about building a bridge across a river or river gorge, but at some point in the building of the structure the bridge builder realises he hasn’t the strength or time to complete the task and has to turn to the Devil for assistance.  The price levied by the Devil for his assistance is that he should receive the first soul that crosses it.

Die Teufelsbrücke by Karl Blechen

In my featured painting, Teufelsbrücke or Devil’s Bridge painted by the German Romantic artist, Karl Blechen, in 1832.  In the painting we see the Devil’s Bridge straddling the Swiss River Reuss as it passes through the Schöllenen Gorge on its way to Lake Lucerne.   The legend of this particular Devil’s Bridge states that the river was so difficult to cross that a Swiss goat herdsman asked the Devil to make a bridge. The Devil duly appeared, but required that if he should construct the bridge, the soul of the first to cross it would be given to him. The herder agreed, but instead of crossing the bridge first and risk losing his soul he drove a goat across ahead of him, thus tricking the devil.   The Devil was so angry that he had been duped he fetched a rock with the intention of smashing the bridge, but an old woman drew a cross on the rock and this prevented the Devil from being able to lift it.    The rock is still there and, in 1977, 300,000 Swiss Francs were spent to move the 220 ton rock by 127 m in order to make room for the new Gotthard road tunnel.

Karl Blechen was born in Cottbus in 1798.   His father was a local tax collector and Karl started his working life as a minor bank official.  It was not until he was aged twenty four that he began to study art.  In 1822 he enrolled at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (Academy of the Arts).  Later when he was working in Dresden as an apprentice in an art studio he was befriended by two artists also based in the city , the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and the Norweigen artist, Johan Christian Dahl who were leaders in the fields of art known as Romanticism and Realism.   My Daily Art Display has featured some of their works and they are well worth viewing.   Their styles would influence Blechen in his future works.   In 1828 he travelled to Italy where he remained for a year studying art and in particular, oil painting.  It was here that he was introduced to the en plein air style of painting and was influenced by the works of English landscape painter, Turner who was also in Italy at this time and by the French landscape painter, John-Baptiste Corot, who at this period in time, lived in Italy.  He returned to Germany and in 1831 and was awarded a professorship at the Berlin Academy.   Despite this academic recognition the sales of his work were disappointing and this depressed him.  His depression and mental state deteriorated and four years later, at the age of thirty-seven he was diagnosed as being mentally unstable.  Blechen died in 1840 in Berlin, a broken man, aged forty-two.

When Karl Blechen visited Italy his journey fostered an interest on visual phenomena and how light and colour effects landscapes.  A number of his paintings were categorised as being of a Romantic genre.  The Romantic artists, of which Blechen was one, applauded individualism, subjectivism, irrationalism, imagination, emotions and nature – emotion over reason and senses over intellect.  Whilst Blechen was returning back to Germany he travelled along the St Gothard’s pass and the Teufelsbrücke was still being built.  This Devil’s Bridge depicted by Blechen in his painting is enclosed by snow-capped mountains which soar into the sky and below them we can see the raging torrents of the Reuss River.  I think what I like most about this painting is the beautiful way in which Blechen has depicted the sunlight penetrating a gap in the mountains to light up the bridge and some of its builders.  It is as if somebody has switched on a spotlight to illuminate the scene.  In the central mid ground we see the arch of the old bridge and the partly constructed arch of the new one with its scaffolding.   The illuminated partly-built new arch is dwarfed by the mountains and one wonders whether its frailty and exposed position will be able to withstand the forces of nature when gale force winds relentlessly charge down the valley.    There is also a sensation of remoteness about the scene.  We are aware that we are miles from civilisation but can marvel in the savagery of nature.  In the right foreground we see some of the bridge builders taking a well earned rest from their labours amongst all their building materials.

Karl Blechen has managed to create an image which is both awe-inspiring and beautiful and one which makes us realise how small we are in comparison to our surroundings.   This awesome painting by Karl Blechen, which I have featured today,  hangs in
the Bavarian State Picture Collection housed in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.

 

 

Hard Times by Sir Hubert von Herkomer

Hard Times by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1885)

My featured artist today is the German painter Hubert von Herkomer.  He was born in 1849 in Waal, a small town in southern Bavaria.  He was an only child.  His father Lorenz was a talented wood carver and his mother was a talented pianist and music teacher.  At the age of two he and his family emigrated to America and settled in Cleveland Ohio.  Their stay in America was comparatively short for in 1857 they returned to Europe, settling down in Southampton, England.  Herkomer first art tuition came from his father and later in life he often said that his father had been one of the most important and positive influences on his career.   He went to school in Southampton and began his art education when he attended the Southampton School of Art.  One of his fellow students was Luke Fildes who was to become one of the greatest English Social Realism painters (see My Daily Art Display, May 17th).  When he was sixteen years old his father took him back to Bavaria where he attended the Munich Academy for a short time.  In 1866 he returned to England and enrolled at the South Kensington Schools which we now know as the Royal College of Art and at the age of twenty he exhibited, for the first time, at the Royal Academy.

Herkomer left Kensington Art School and 1867 and started a career as a book and magazine illustrator. However he found most of the work tedious and so being a young man with radical political opinions he was excited by the news that the social reformer, William Thomas, intended to launch an illustrated weekly magazine called the Graphic.  Herkomer immediately fired with enthusiasm sent Thomas a drawing of a group of gypsies. The magazine owner, Thomas, was delighted with the drawings and the following week it appeared in his magazine.   Over the next few years Herkomer supplied Thomas with more drawings which were published.  He applied to join the staff of the magazine but was both annoyed and disappointed when his application was turned down by Thomas.  Herkomer had no choice but to remain as a freelance contributor.  Although devastated by the refusal he was later to recall that this rebuff was to be the making of him as an artist.  He wrote about his belief that he had an obligation to pictorially depict the hard times of the poor and the importance of such magazines like the Graphic, saying:

 “…It is not too much to say that there was a visible change in the selection of subjects by painters in England after the advent of the Graphic.  Mr. Thomas opened its pages to every phase of the story of our life; he led the rising artist into drawing subjects that might never have otherwise arrested his attention; he only asked that they should be subjects of universal interest and of artistic value.  I owe to Mr. Thomas everything in my early art career.  Whether it was to do a two-penny lodging-house for St. Giles’, a scene in Petticoat Lane, Sunday morning, the flogging of a criminal in Newgate Prison, an entertainment given to Italian organ grinders, it mattered little.  It was a lesson in life, and a lesson in art.  I am only one of many who received these lessons at the hands of Mr. W. L. Thomas….”

(Spartacus Educational Hubert Von Herkomer)

A number of his engravings which were used in the Graphic were later reworked by Herkomer into large scale oil paintings.  In 1879 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and became an Academician in 1890.

In 1880 Herkomer started to concentrate on portraiture which, at the time, was the most lucrative art genre.  His fame grew and he spent time in America where he completed thirteen portraits during his ten week stay and for them he received the princely sum of £6000.  His wealth grew rapidly and he could now afford a luxurious lifestyle.  Despite the lucrative portraiture market he never lost his love of Social Realism art which drew attention to the atrocious conditions of the poor.  It was in the late nineteenth century that he produced some of his great Social Realism paintings such as Pressing to the West in 1884; today’s featured painting Hard Times in 1885 and On Strike in 1891.  In 1883 Herkomer started his own art school at Bushey in Hertfordshire, at which he oversaw some five hundred would-be artists.  He served as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University between 1885 and 1895 and was knighted by the King in 1907.  Herkomer died in 1914 aged 65 and is buried in St James’s Church, Bushey.

The featured painting in My Daily Art Display is entitled Hard Times and was painted by Herkomer in 1885.  It now hangs in the City Art Gallery of Manchester.  The artist was dedicated to bringing the social problems of the poor to the eyes of the public through his oil on canvas paintings.  He never forgot his early impoverished childhood and his health problems.  The author Lee Edwards, who wrote extensively about Herkomer, commented:

“…Herkomer painted a number of pictures that revealed his sympathy with the poor and disadvantaged, a characteristic fostered in part by his own humble origins…”

This painting was one of his most famous works and was one of many of his paintings which featured rural scenes.  His inspiration for this painting was probably the impoverished migrant workers he had seen near his home in Bushey.  Herkomer actually used a real family for his painting, getting an a working labourer, James Quarry and his wife Annie to pose with their two sons Frederick George and his brother James Joseph as unemployed workers and their children.  The setting for this painting was called Coldharbour Lane, a long and winding road in the Hertfordshire countryside.  The outdoor setting was painted en plein air but the characters in the painting were painted later, indoors at his Art School.

The wife who sits with her children by the roadside looks sad and dejected.   On the other hand, the man looks down the road and his face is one of hope and possibly optimism that something will “turn up soon” and the tools of the man’s trade lie before them signifying that strength would eventually overcome hardship.  It is interesting to note the difference in Herkomer’s portrayal of the effect hardship had on men and women.  So should we view this painting as one of hope or one of destitution?

I suppose the answer lies with ourselves and whether when we face problems we believe our glass is half full or half empty !

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.