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"Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth-Century Paintings from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin"
2001-06-10 until 2001-09-03
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, USA

One of the most significant presentations, in terms of range and quality, of 19th-century German painting ever to be shown in the United States is on view at the National Gallery of Art through 3 September 2001. Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth-Century Paintings from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin provides a survey of 19th-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.

This enlightening exhibition offers American audiences the unique opportunity to study the works of important German painters who are rarely represented in North American collections, said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. It is also a timely reminder of a period a century ago when Berlin, then the fastest-growing metropolis in Europe, was, as it is again today, a vital and exciting center for new art.

Exhibition Organization

The works range from the sublime canvases of Caspar David Friedrich and other romantic painters to the brilliantly observed paintings of the naturalists at mid-century; from the richly detailed cityscapes of Berlin by Eduard Gaertner and Johann Erdmann Hummel to masterpieces by Adolph Menzel and powerful works by Max Beckmann and Lovis Corinth--works that startled Berlin viewers a century ago and ushered in a new age of expressionism in German art. While the emphasis is on German painting of the period, important works by Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and Claude Monet are also included. These impressionist masterpieces represent some of the most progressive museum acquisitions in any country at that time and reflect an international spirit that continues in Berlin museums today.

Romantic Landscapes: Romanticism found its most compelling expression in 19th-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 neoclassical 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 settings 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 (c. 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 the 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 captures the natural light and atmospheric conditions of an approaching storm. This 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.

Nazarenes and Late Romantics: 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. Overbeck's portrait of The Painter Franz Pforr (c. 1810) shows his friend in an early Renaissance setting and is painted in the style of the 15th century.

The exhibition continues with romantic landscapes by Carl Blechen (1798-1840), Carl Philipp Fohr (1795-1818), Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), Ludwig Richter (1803-1884), and Carl Rottmann (1797-1850). Blechen often took his paints and brushes out into nature and painted directly from the subject, as seen in View over Roofs and Gardens (c. 1835). Interior of a Palm House (c. 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.

Biedermeier Realism: 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 Waldmüller (1793-1865), Franz Krüger (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.

Menzel: Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) was one of the most significant and progressive realist painters in Germany. The exhibition offers 10 canvases 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 19th century and was acquired by the Nationalgalerie shortly after its completion. On his own initiative, Menzel went to the huge iron mills of 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?

Escaping to Italy: Like the Nazarenes before them, German artists of the second half of the 19th century continued to make their way to Italy. Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880) and Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) led this group of artists known as German Romans. The exhibition features works by these painters, as well as three paintings by Hans von Marées (1837-1887) and two idealized canvases by Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871). In Von Schwind's The Rose, or The Artist's Journey (1846-1847), the painter fills the landscape with knights, maidens, and castles to evoke a medieval, fairytale mood. Bscklin's naturalistic Landscape in the Campagna (c. 1859) evolved from sketches and memories of the seven years he spent in Rome.

Pure Painting and the French Avant-Garde: In the 1870s Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900), Hans Thoma (1839-1924), and Wilhelm Trübner (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, Trübner 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 1896, 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 became widely influential to the younger generation of German artists.

Secession: 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 20th-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 (c. 1582/1583-1666). 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).

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