Published: April 23, 2002
German Romantic Art for Russian Imperial Palaces Shown at Somerset House
LONDON, ENGLAND – Opening April 30 and running through August 18, the third exhibition to be staged at the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House will focus on important Nineteenth Century German paintings and drawings. “The Genius of Caspar David Friedrich: German Romantic Art for Russian Imperial Palaces” presents 53 major works including no less than 12 masterpieces by Friedrich, the leading artist of the German Romantic movement, together with important works by his immediate predecessors, contemporaries and successors. The exhibition is generously supported by Donald and Jeanne Kahn.
The State Hermitage Museum’s holdings of Nineteenth Century German art are unequalled outside Germany, due to the enthusiasm of Tsar Nicholas I and his German-born wife Alexandra Fyodorovna, who was the sister of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Encouraged and informed by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky, the nationalist poet who was tutor to the Royal children, Nicholas and Alexandra purchased and commissioned new works by contemporary German artists.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is now acknowledged to have made the most important German contribution to European Romanticism, although during his lifetime he was revered mainly by a small circle of intellectuals and other artists and what fame he had only lasted little more than ten years, from 1808, the year after he first began to paint in oils, to about 1820 when Nicholas I visited Friedrich’s studio and bought several paintings. His atmospheric works are imbued with religious and emotional symbolism and reflect his spiritual responses to landscape.
The first room of the exhibition will show six of the nine paintings by Friedrich belonging to the Hermitage. There are three interlinked paintings that were executed between 1818 and 1821 after the artist’s return from a trip with his wife in the first year of their marriage, during which they sailed to Rugen Island together with his brother and sister-in-law.
“On a Sailing Ship,” which depicts a man and woman with hands linked looking serenely toward the shore, is one of the most optimistic in mood of all Friedrich’s oeuvre. “Night in a Harbour (Sisters)” shows his wife and sister-in-law gazing towards the twin spires of church and is suffused with religious symbolism. “Moonrise over the Sea” shows four figures, perhaps Friedrich and his brother, his wife and sister-in-law, looking toward the approaching sail of a ship and was explained by Zhukovsky to the Empress as an image of hope.
“Morning in the Mountains,” 1822-3, depicts one of his favorite subjects with the ranges disappearing into the distance perhaps symbolizing the eternal world of divine creation, while “Swans in the Reeds,” circa 1832, is a lyrical depiction of the beautiful bird. The latest painting is “The Dreamer (Ruins of the Monastery at Oybin),” an atypically uncomplicated work of circa 1835.
Another gallery will be devoted to five of Friedrich’s highly finished sepia drawings and one watercolor. Friedrich only worked in oils between 1807 and 1935, when he suffered a stroke, and in his last years he returned to working in sepia. The five examples in the exhibition are all from this late period when in spite of his frailty he devised very strong images particularly in a series of deeply symbolic works showing owls, harbingers of coming misfortune and death.
Among the exhibits is “Owl in Flight Before a Full Moon,” one of the artist’s most striking works, full of emotional intensity. It depicts the flying bird silhouetted darkly, wings spread wide, against the full moon flooding an uneven light over the clouds. In “Owl in a Gothic Window” the bird is set against a moonlit sky, its eyes fixed on the viewer. Friedrich creates the sense of an enclosed, dark space like a cell from which there is no escape. The artist was frequently drawn to the symbolism of the window and in “Window with a View of a Park” the window is firmly shut with only emptiness inside, conveying a sense of loneliness and isolation from the outside world.
In addition to the works by Friedrich, the exhibition includes a series of gouaches by Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), paintings by Freidrich Johann Overbeck (1789-1864), Joseph Anton Koch (1769-1839) and Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), and a series of pen and ink views of the Crimea made by Carl Ferdinand von Kugelgen for Alexander I in 1824. Also shown is a series of pictures of the French invasion of Russia in 1812 made by Albrecht Adam for Eugene Beauharnais, whose son married, Maria, Nicholas’s favorite daughter.
The work of Caspar David Friedrich is represented in British public collections by a single oil painting, “Winter Landscape,” 1811, in the National Gallery and a handful of works on paper. “The Genius of Caspar David Friedrich: German Romantic Art for Russian Imperial Palaces” therefore not only explores the Germanic tastes of Tsar Nicholas I and his immediate family, but also offers a British audience a unique showing of masterpieces by this major artist.
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