Art of the Vienna Galleries – The Early German Painters

FROM CABINET XI we will enter GALLERY IX, and we find ourselves in surroundings that are widely different from the grace of the Italians and the harmonious, deep colour of the Dutch — the Early German painters are shown here.

The influence of national traits of character and national experiences upon the art expression of a people is too much lost sight of. The dicta ” Art is cosmopolitan,” ” there are no national boundaries in art,” and the like, are bandied about frequently, but thoughtlessly. No one can deny that the changes in Italian art of pre-Renaissance, Renaissance, and post-Renaissance periods were greatly influenced, if not caused, by the social conditions of the people, by the changing power of the Church, the division into small republics, the effect of encroaching Spanish dominion, the growth of Venetian wealth and luxury, and so on. So we may note that the almost dramatic changes in French history forced, according to these changes, a reflex in the compous art of Rigaud, the gay gallantry of Watteau and his school, the stern classicism of David. And we find the race speaking through the sincere self-contained panels of the Dutch Little Masters; while the peculiar atmospheric condition of the lowlands was the significant inspiration of Dutch landscape art.

Thus we find in early German art a distinct factor at work that specialises this art from that of other nationalities. For instance, in Italy the Church was the first employer of artists and demanded more or less explicitly the glorification of itself and its doctrines. The reactionary fervour against paganism often regarded beauty as a snare, and strove to wean the hearts of the people from terrestrial delights. Thus sacred art in Italy became principally a mouth-piece for polemics and ecclesiastical traditions. But in Germany it was apparent that the seeds of the great upheaval, the Reformation, were sown generations before it burst forth– and early German art shows this. From the very beginning we note rebellion against priestly dominion. The artists did not paint as the Church taught, but as they them-selves thought. Independent minds were led in humanitarian channels— art was ethic, not dogmatic. And although the first instruction, of course, came from Italy and bore its characteristics, these traditional forms were soon altered to realise native surroundings, to make even sacred themes applicable to the people and not to doctrines. It was the spirit of individualism, peculiar to the Northern peoples, already manifest in Holland, and even more strongly marked in Germany. Hence Madonnas became idealised Teutonic types, as buxom and often as homely as the village frau; and when King David is thirsty and one of his generals brings him water to drink, an early German artist, Konrad Witz, shows the king as an Elector-Palatine, and the general as an armoured knight.

Another indication of the influence of surroundings and conditions upon art is to be seen as soon as printing was invented. Whether it was invented in Germany or elsewhere matters not; the fact remains that in Germany this new invention was earliest popularised; and not only for the printing of letters, but also of pictures from engravings, with wood-block or copper-plate. Thus the painter-engraver came into existence, and we note as a consequence the greater detail of line when the artist worked with the brush, which has remained a typical trait of German art ever since. So is anecdotal, illustrative painting nothing but an expression of a racial, Teutonic characteristic.

German art began in the 14th century, inspired by Italy, influenced by France, and owing its technique to the Netherlands. It developed in depth and breadth through the 15th century, and in the 16th century commenced to show real, individual strength ; but the 17th and 18th centuries are blank pages in its history.

It is to be regretted that the three earliest works of German art, which for a century hung in the old Belvedere, have since 1901 been removed to the Imperial castle Karlstein. These were three primitive examples of the work of the so-called Meister von Prag, who was active in 1348-1367.

The earliest work we find here now is a panel showing the ” Holy Family ” (No. 1478), And catalogued as German school, second half of the 15th century. This picture must from internal evidence be assigned to the first half of that century, and to the Basel artist, Konrad Witz, whose style seems to have been founded on that of the Master of Flémalle, Jules Daret. The monogram MS. on the panel, evidently referring to Martin Schongauer, is indubitably forged. To the right we see the bediademed Madonna with the Child, in a dark fur garment, at her side. Joseph stands to the left handing the child a pear. There is a feeling for light-effect such as the school of van Eyck had originated. Although the foreshortenings are in exact, the attempt to solve this problem is striking; but there is an exaggeration of the sharp and angular lines in the voluminous folds of drapery, which the early German painters adopted in imitation of the sculpture of that period. The absence of any mysticism, and the material, naturalistic manner of presentation must be noted.

Only a little later is the origin of a ” Crucifixion ” (No. 1396), by Meister Pfenning, who according to the date on the panel was active in 1449, most probably in Nuremberg. There is a dramatic juxtaposition in the group under the crosses of the two thieves, fully expressive of the warring factions that were gathered. These people are dressed in a curious mixture of German and oriental costumes. All is dominated by the high centre-cross with its burden of woe, and the group of sorrowing women in the foreground. The types of faces are far more realistic and less archaic than is seen, even at that time, in Italian works.

By Martin Schongauer we find here a small panel showing a ” Holy Family ” (No. 1490. Plate XVIII), which is beyond doubt one of the few known pictures by his own hand. The influence of the Netherland school, as it was then felt through-out Germany, is very manifest. There is the same realism, or rather humanism we might call it, which characterises the works of the van Eycks and of van der Weyden.

Schongauer, the son of a goldsmith, was principally active as an etcher, which gave his style much vigour and reeling in the line. He was the principal figure among the Colmar painters, who constituted in Suabia a school of almost equal importance with the school of Cologne.

The socalled monogrammist R.F. has lately been identified as Rueland Frueauf, a painter who was active in Passau and Salzburg from 1471 until 1484. Four sacred pictures (Nos. 1397-1400)

show narrative qualities without deep spiritual feeling.

That German art possessed the germ of its own greatness, without being for long in need of foreign inspiration, is proved by the appearance, thus early, of that original genius who well may be named in one breath with Titian and Rembrandt — Albrecht Dürer.

The theory that has been propounded as to racial traits in art expression, and the manifestation of national characteristics in the work of artists, as well as the theory of the influence and dominating stamp of particular, crucial eras in a nation’s life, is in no artist so plainly and markedly demonstrated as in Dürer, the most representative artist of Germany. It is demonstrated, not alone by his work as a painter, but perhaps even -more clearly in his wood-engravings, a branch of art which then held a strong place of influence in the culture of his time.

All the qualities of Dürer’s art, its combination of the wild and rugged with the homely and tender, its meditative depth, its enigmatic gloom, its sincerity and energy, its diligence and discipline — all these are qualities of the German spirit. We find in him a definite national type; a Teutonic always, with stubborn Gothic elements, and most powerfully impressed by that consciousness of innate force which stirred his nation during his lifetime, as it also carried Luther in its maelstrom. For these two, Luther and Dürer, cannot be separated in spirit. They manifested each the same combination of adherence to tradition and to the struggle for liberty of thought.

We miss in Dürer’s work that purity and simplicity of form which gives the great Italians their high rank. Instead, we find in him the gravity, the conscientiousness, the richly imaginative and poetic traits of his race. He inherited the hardness, angularity and ungraciousness characteristic of the school in which he grew up, and preferred energy and vitality to beauty. But although there is this harshness and ruggedness, and a lack of grace and loveliness in his art, through its very uncouthness shines the glory of a superb and heroic genius. In his love of pure craftsmanship he may sacrifice grace to truth — there is still a quaint mingling of austerity and playfulness, and his analytical mind in its devotion to detail is not cramped, as it follows nature rather than soars toward the ideal.

As a draughtsman Dürer was unrivalled for precision, dexterity and variety ; his human figures, generally without grace or elegance, are vital in expression; his landscape is more picturesque than grandiose; and all is imbued with the spirituality of his nature which was not in the least ascetic, but generous and wholesouled.

Being much-travelled, it goes without saying that outside influences are to be noted in his progress. Thus we see after his return from Italy that he had acquired something of the suavity of Venetian art, without abandoning, however, his native characteristics. These works of his so-called second period, of which we will see some famous examples, offer a unique blending of greater polish with his racial traits.

No less than five of the seven works that are displayed in the Imperial Museum must be considered among Dürer’s masterpieces. His two Madonnas show at once a difference in type, of psychological conception from the Italian Madonnas. The frontispiece of this volume, picture No. 1447, painted in 1512, ” The Madonna of the Cut Pear,” in which Mary, with bent head and sunken eyes, a sweet expression playing around the corners of the mouth, holds the Child, that looks up with self-conscious brightness. It holds in its hand a partly-cut pear which gives the picture its name. It is a group of tender sweetness, not at all suggesting the halo, but such a mother and child as his friend Luther pictured to the people. The painting is uncommonly limpid and harmonious, the flesh tints are rosy in the lights and grey in the shadows, and the hair is rendered with the extremest minuteness and precision.

The Germanic type is still more apparent in the ” Mary with the Child ” (No. 1442) — a happy pair, the mother smiling, the child with uncouth gesture seeking nourishment. The group has an indefinable charm of purity and spiritual reality.

The painting among Dürer’s work which is considered preeminent, as is the ” Nightwatch ” of Rembrandt, and the ” Sistine Madonna” of Raphael, is the large ” Adoration of the Holy Trinity ” (No. 1445). It is an altarpiece which Dürer painted for the iron-founder Matthias Landauer, to be presented to the Twelve Brother-hood of Nuremberg. In the arch of the canvas the Father, over whom the Dove floats, holds the crucified body of the Son. Hosts of angels, saints, prophets and martyrs are grouped around Him, resting on the clouds which separate them from the groups of believers gathered on the border of a lake. These are the Emperor, Dukes, Doges, Pope, Cardinals and Bishops, together with knights, monks and peasants; and the grey donor in a black, fur-bordered cloak is among them. This is a marvellous painting of harmonious colour, impressive by its momentous beauty.

In 1585 the Protestant town-council of Nuremberg robbed Landauer’s almshouse of this altarpiece, and sold it to the Emperor Rudolph II — a far more sensible act, and to posterity less injurious, than the vandalic destruction of priceless works of art during the religious riots which culminated in the Image Storm,” principally in the Netherlands.

A pupil of Dürer used the motives of this painting for a triptychon, whereof the two side-wings are also found here (No. 1440).

In 1508 Dürer painted for the Elector Frederick the Wise, of Saxony, canvas entitled ” The Martyrdom of Ten Thousand Christians under King Sapor in Persia” (No. 1446). However oppressive and horrible the vision of all these tormented human beings may be, one is still impressed with the magnificent grandeur of presentation. Dürer himself, accompanied by his friend Willibald Pirkheiiner, is seen passing among these scenes of horror.

Of the three portraits by Dürer found here, two at least may be reckoned of supreme interest. No. 1443 is the famous half-length portrait of the Emperor Maximilian I, painted in 1518. He is a grey, old man, weary of the cares of state, but showing worthy dignity of mind and character, and an imposing personality of indomitable will. No. 1448 shows the head of Johann Kleeberger, who was born in Nuremberg but settled as merchant in Lyons, where he became the munificent benefactor of that city. The painting is executed to look like a cameo bust on a circular shield, which emphasises the sculpturesque intensity of outline, and the powerful expressiveness of features. No. 1444 presents the portrait of an energetic man, full of virility and dominant force.

A fine copy (No. 1450) hangs here of Dürer’s famous picture, his ” Feast of the Rose-garlands,” the original of which is now in the monastery of Strahow, Prague. Dürer painted this important picture in Venice in 1506, for a, German commercial society, as an altarpiece for their chapel. It pro-cured him the admiration of the Italian artists, who had regarded him merely as a skilful wood-engraver, but had derided his talent for painting. The figure of the Madonna is thoroughly German in conception and spirit, yet the influence of the painter’s Venetian stay is plainly visible. Mary’s appearance is slightly changed to the ethereal, spiritual presentation of the Italian school, which the artist abandoned again for the Germanic conception of the human side as soon as he returned north. It has been said that the little angel playing on a lute at the Virgin’s feet, so characteristic of the sancte conversazioni of the Venetians, was a mark of homage offered by the German master to the great Bellini.

Dürer’s pupil, Hans Sues von Kulmbach, could never forego the influence of his master, as may be seen in the ” Coronation of Mary ” (No. 1438). Still he had a wealth of motif, and a bright, mild colour scheme that was quite individual. Dürer’s characteristics are still less apparent in two panels by Kulmbach, recently added to the Museum, in one of which Mary is seen reading a large folio; while on the other the Angel of the Annunciation is pictured. These panels have more of the Italian method, and are much in the style of Jacopo de’ Barbari. Bartel Beham and the talented Hans Leonhard Schäuffelein came from Dürer’s studio. By Beham we have a portrait of King Ferdinand I; and from Schäuffelein’s hand, besides two bust portraits (Nos. 1435 and 1437), a fine altarpiece with three pairs of wings (No. 1438), which contains one hundred and fifty-seven different scenes from the life of Christ.

One of the greatest of the German Renaissance painters was the Augsburg artist Hans Burckmair, who, besides much that is of little moment, has produced many works of power. The ” Double Portrait” (No. 1405) of the master and his wife (Plate XIX) shows the proficiency in the art of portrait painting by men not directly under Darer’s influence. The doctrine of the vanity of human life, then so rife in Germany, is to be recognised by the reflection in the mirror which Burckmair’s wife holds in her hand. This shows two human skulls, with the legend inscribed at the top of the picture in a scroll : ” Thus we appeared, but in the mirror only that.”

Another portrait painter of independent development but moderate attainment was Bernhard Strigel, by whom we have two portraits of the Emperor Maximilian I (Nos. 1426 and 1429), and a family group of the Emperor with his family (No. 1425).

The far reaching influence of the art of Dürer through his etchings and woodcuts is shown in the Austrian painter Albrecht Altdorfer, who, however, followed also in many respects the great light-painter Matthias Grünewald. Vienna does not possess any examples of Grünewald’s brush, but he can best be studied in the Kolmar Museum. Altdorfer’s little Christmas picture (No. 1421) is a charming composition, full of interesting details and a wonderful play of light-effects. It is also a fairly good presentation of the new departure in landscape painting, which Altdorfer originated and which came to be called the Donau style — an ingenuous combination of the ideal and the real in nature, with an effect produced that might be called scenic. His ” Holy Family ” (No. 1422) is in the manner of the Italian half-figures.

In Hans Baldung Grien we find also a mixture of Dürer’s and Grünewald’s influence, leaning more towards the latter’s sharp delineation in strong light. An allegorical representation of ” Vanity ” (No. 1423), attacked by Death and defended by Slander, gives us a first view of the painting of the nude, to which the German artists never became over-partial.

Most characteristic of the Teutonic love of story telling is the work of Leonhard Beck, who entered the painters’ Guild of Augsburg in 1503, and died in that city in 1542. There is a crowding of incident and detail in his St. George ” (No. 1431. Plate XX) which is not found in any other school. In this finely painted picture, in which the figures are repeated to tell the progress of the story, the landscape part is wonderfully rich. In the foreground St. George is killing the dragon before the eyes of the terrified princess; after which we see him in the middle-distance peacefully following the lady to receive the reward for his courage.

The fame of Lucas Cranach, the Elder, rests principally on the naiveté, ofttimes humourous, of his compositions, which, however, lack deep feeling, or even a sense of beauty. Among the dozen paintings we find here his ” Paradise ” (No. 1462) is the most characteristic. In six scenes the story of the creation and fall of man is related, but with a freshness and originality of style that ‘makes us forget the archaic qualities. ” Adam and Eve under the Apple-tree ” (No. 1459) possesses much of the same traits. ” Christ’s Farewell from Mary and the Women on his Way to Golgotha ” (No. 1456) has some expression of deeper feeling. A Deer-hunt ” (No. 1452) is a queer scene in which the Elector of Saxony plays a part as if the hunt were orderly arranged upon a large stage. No. 1454 is a droll portrayal of an enamoured old man with a girl. The fine ” Rest on the Flight to Egypt,” an early work which is now in the Berlin Museum, is shown here in an excellent contemporaneous copy (No. 1463).

His son, Lucas Cranach, the Younger, frequently aided his father in his work. Two portraits, half-figures, of a Man (No. 1469), and of a Woman (No. 1470), and ” Christ taken Prisoner ” (No. 1467) are from the younger man’s hands, although the catalogue gives the last named picture unduly to the father. A pupil of the elder Cranach, Wolfgang Krodel, has a ” David and Bathsheba ” (No. 1471) in a conventional presentation which is, nevertheless, interesting.

The best known of German painters, next to Dürer, is Hans Holbein the Younger, the complete contrast to Dürer. Holbein was a man not prone to theorise, not steeped in speculation, a dreamer of no dreams. Without passion he looked out upon the world around him, accepting nature without preoccupation or afterthought, but with a keen sense of all her subtle beauties, loving her simply and for herself. Not so Teutonic in every way as the great Nuremberg master, he formed a link between the Italian and German races.

Where Dürer was hindered by an overpowering imagination, Holbein is weakened by the lack of it. Thus his biblical scenes are tame in comparison with those of his predecessor. His coolness of mind aided him, however, in his portrait work, for which he is justly famous. There he displays sharp characterisation and exquisite painters’ quality.

The seven works shown here are all portraits of his later years, when he was court-painter of Henry VIII, of England. The most striking of these is the portrait of ” Jane Seymour, the third Queen of Henry VIII ” (No. 1481. Plate )(XI). Here is a beautiful painting, full of charming detail in execution. She appears in the most splendid costume, an underdress of silver brocade, over which she wears a gown of deep red velvet. Wherever it is possible rich gold ornament is introduced, her dress and cap, of the well-known angular shape, are studded with pearls, and round her neck is a chain of pearls, from which is suspended a rich jewelled ornament. The whole is executed in miniaturelike perfection; but in spite of its splendour and glittering profusion, the countenance of the Queen out-shines all the rest with its wonderfully delicate and clear tint.

Of stronger, even monumental impress, is the portrait of ” John Chambers ” (No. 1486), the court-physician. The ” Portrait of Dirck Tybis ” (No. 1485), a German merchant residing in Lon-don, was painted in 1533; while the half-figure of a man (No. 1479) came in 1541. A comparison between these two portraits, but eight years apart, shows the progress Holbein made in his art, even in his later years.

Among the remaining pictures in this gallery we may note three good portraits by the Austrian-courtpainter Jacob Seisenegger, who on the whole was but a slavish imitator of Titian. So does the work of Christoph Amberger, of Hans Muelich, and of the later Hans Grimmer show how early the decay of German art set in through the loss of its native originality, caused by Italian imitation.

Thus we cannot expect to find much of interest in GALLERY X, where hang the works of the later men, of the end of the 16th, of the 17th and of the 18th centuries. It is a deadly medley of mediocrity, and most of the works are unworthy of consideration. Only a few pictures displayed here shall be noted.

A number of allegorical and mythological paintings— a round dozen (Nos. 1495-1506) by the Antwerp-born Bartholomaeus Spranger, who became Imperial court-painter at Prague, are of little interest. One of these (No. 1500) has the peculiarity of being painted on a marble slab, whereby the colour, through the luminous quality of the stone underground, becomes quite brilliant. But that is a purely mechanical accident, and ” Apollo and the Muses,” which the subject represents, are as prosy and tiresome as any of the other deities captured within the other frames. Hans von Achen, Josef Heinz, Christoph Schwarz, and a number of others, of as little value, present only echoes of the great Venetians, of Tintoretto, Veronese and others. Johann Rottenhammer, as Italianised as the rest, still allows some Teutonic fantasy to play through his composition in ” The Entrance of the Doomed into Hell ” (No. 1526), and in ” The Last Judgment ” (No. 1527), which, of course, have also a Michelangelesque reminiscence.

The defamer of Rembrandt, Joachim von Sandrart, did not at all profit by the instructions he received in the studio of Honthorst, Rembrandt’s pupil. His paintings here (Nos. 1536-1539) be-speak a man of no original mind, as they are but copies of Dutch and Flemish works. In his writings on art and artists, however, he displayed amazing originality, and a power of imagination which did not at all concern itself with facts.

Balthasar Denner imitated the technique of the old German painters, as seen in his two portraits of elderly people (Nos. 1582 and 1583) while Franz Casanova, perhaps, excelled the Frenchman Bourguignon whose battlescenes he followed and improved upon.

The saving grace in all this foreign embroilment was a striving for classic expression found in Anton Raphael Mengs, who, with Angelica Kaufmann, represents at its best in Germany the academic tendency which was beginning to rule the French art world. Their contemporary popularity does not, however, find a present-day response.

The third division of Cabinet XI contains a few 17th century German works which are mostly echoes of Dutch art. Of interest is a ” Rest on the Flight to Egypt” (No. 1628), by Adam Elsheimer, of whom frequent mention has been made. This is an early work of the artist, full of the poetic charm and the searching for light-effect which distinguished his art.

GALLERY VIII need not detain us long. It is filled with the works of the men of the 18th century — all imitators. Whether the paintings are signed Brand, Roos, Hartmann or Fischer, it is easy to put alongside their names those of Breughel, Tiepolo, van Bloemen, or other Italian or Dutch artists whom they followed. With a shorter history of eminent attainment, the decay of German art set in earlier and its inefficiency was more complete and lasted longer than in any other country.