Published: May 29, 2001
WASHINGTON, D.C. – One of the most significant presentations – in terms of range and quality – of Nineteenth Century German painting ever to be shown in the United States will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, June 10 through September 3. “Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth Century Paintings from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin” provides a survey of Nineteenth Century German painting, and a history of Germany itself, through 75 of the finest works by 35 artists from the collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), Berlin.
The museum, which opened in 1876 to house the Prussian king’s collection of paintings and sculpture, is currently closed for renovations as part of a larger reorganization of all Berlin’s museums. In December 2001, when the museum reopens, it will display for the first time since 1939 the complete collection of work for which it was built.
Romanticism found its most compelling expression in Nineteenth Century Germany in the music of Beethoven, the writings of Goethe, and the art of landscape painter David Caspar Friedrich (1774-1840). Friedrich rejected the conventional formula of recent neo-classical painting in favor of depicting nature and the German landscape, often with an emphasis on spirituality, nationalism, and the past.
He created a visual vocabulary of symbolic imagery and typically featured solitary figures placed in lonely setting amidst ruins, cemeteries, mountains, and the frozen and rocky waters of the Baltic coast.
He endowed inanimate objects with symbolic values, as seen in the expressive trees and evocative moonlight, of “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” (circa 1824). In “Oak Tree in the Snow” (1829), Friedrich uses an oak tree lost in a wintry expanse of snow as a vehicle for religious and patriotic expression.
Twenty-four paintings by Caspar David Friedrich are at the heart of Nationalgalerie’s collection and constitute the largest number of his works to be united under one roof. Seven will be on view in the exhibition.
The works by Friedrich are complemented by four paintings of imaginative landscapes and architectural visions by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). His impressive life’s work comprised architecture, town planning and designs for stage sets. In his historical landscape paintings, such as “Medieval City on a River” (1813), the artist captureD the natural light and atmospheric conditions of an approaching storm.
The painting idealized the German Middle Ages as a period of national unity and strength, and suggested a model for the political and spiritual situation in Germany after the defeat of Napoleon and his invading French forces. Gothic architecture was claimed to be German in origin, giving it a particularly symbolic character in the context of German nationalism.
In 1809 a group of German artists who were active in Rome, including Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), formed a brotherhood of artists that would become known as the Nazarenes. These artists sought to reform art by returning it to the innocent spirit they perceived in the paintings of such Italian Renaissance artists as Perugino and Raphael. Overbecks’ portrait of “The Painter Franz Pforr” (circa 1810) shows his friend in an early Renaissance setting and is painted in the style of the Fifteenth Century.
The exhibition continues with romantic landscapes by Carl Blechen (1798-1840), Carl Phillip Fohr (1795-1818), Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1939), Ludwig Richter (1803-1884), Carl Rottmann (1797-1850), and Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871).
Blechen often took his paints and brushes out into nature and painted directly from the subject, as seen in “View over Roofs and Gardens” (circa 1835). “Interior of a Palm House” (circa 1833) introduces an exotic note: Women in Oriental dress are reclining in the palm house designed for Frederick William III, King of Prussia, by his favorite architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel.
The years between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the revolutions of 1848, known as the Biedermeier era, were a time of relative peace, prosperity and innovation in Germany. Painters such as Eduard Gaertner (1801-1877) and Johann Erdmann Hummel (1769-1852) carefully depicted the city of Berlin, its classical architecture, elegant boulevards such as Unter den Linden, and technological feats such as the giant granite bowl in the Lustgarten.
Other artists from this period, like Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller (1793-1865), Franz Kruger (1797-1857), and Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), turned their attention to the close observation and naturalistic depiction of rural landscapes, genre subjects, and portraits of the newly optimistic middle class.
Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) was one of the most significant and progressive realist painters in Germany. The exhibition offers ten canvasses by Menzel, including his small, informal oil studies of Berlin landscapes and bourgeois interiors, such as “The Balcony Room” (1845) and “The Berlin-Postdam Railway” (1847). These paintings anticipate impressionism and are surprisingly modern in their sensibility.
Menzel’s “The Iron-rolling Mill” (1875) is one of the greatest images of the industrial revolution in the Nineteenth Century and was acquired by the Nationalgalerie shortly after its completion. One his own initiative, Menzel went to huge iron mills in Upper Silesia in 1872, to study the manufacturing processes. He made countless vivid drawings of men and machinery. Menzel’s powerful image embodies the paradoxes of industrialism already debated at the time: are these workers heroes or victims?
Like the Nazarenes before them, German artists of the second half of the Nineteenth Century continued to make their way to Italy. Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880) and Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) led this group of artists known as “German Romans.”
Feuerbach’s “Memento of Tivoli” (1866-1867) shows the artist’s interest in monumental painting and at the same time demonstrates his desire to create a wistful, melancholy image of Italy, in a landscape setting reminiscent of French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). Bocklin’s naturalistic “Landscape in the Campagna” (circa 1859) evolved from sketches and memories of the seven years he spent in Rome. The exhibition also features three paintings by Hans von Marees (1837-1887).
In the 1870s Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), Hans Thorna (1839-1924) and Wilhelm Trubner )1851-1917) translated into German the style of French painters such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and the early impressionists.
These young artists were looking for a new approach to painting that would free them from the restraints of academic painting. They focused their efforts on ways of methodically rendering form and color on canvas. Following Edouard Manet’s (1832-1883) example, Trubner painted “On the Sofa” in 1872, concentrating as much on the patterns and textures of the objects in the room as on the sitter herself.
The Nationalgalerie played a vital role in promoting German interest in modern French paintings. When Hugo von Tschudi became director in 1869, he began acquiring impressionist works against the wishes of the highly conservative Kaiser, even before French museums did.
The exhibition will present five of these works, including “Mill on the Couleuvre at Pontoise” (1881), the first painting by Paul Cézanne to be purchased by any museum in the world; and Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) “St-Germain-l’Auxerrois” (1867). These paintings widely influenced the younger generation of German artists.
The 1890s saw the formation of secession movements throughout Germany and art characterized by its purposeful distortion of natural forms and anti-academic styles. The wave of Twentieth Century masters that emerged from the independent exhibiting societies of the Berlin secession, led by Max Liebermann (1847-1935), included Impressionist Max Slevogt (1868-1932) and expressionists Max Beckmann (1884-1950) and Lovis Corinth (1856-1925).
Liebermann painted landscapes, portraits and scenes of urban life that were influenced by works by Dutch painter Frans Hals (circa 1582/83-1666). Corinth’s “Samson Blinded” (1912) reflects the influence the other members of the Berlin secession had on the artist’s working methods – more vehement brushwork, a brighter and more colorful palette, and a thicker paint application.
The exhibition closes with early works by Beckmann, including “Small Deathbed Scene” (1906), which represents the private experience of fear, suffering, and death and was created under the formative influence of Edvard Munch (1863-1944).
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden, on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets at Constitutional Avenue NW, are open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm. For information, call 202-737-4215.
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