Metropolitan Museum – German Paintings

IN the history of German painting there have been a few very great names — Durer, Holbein, Bocklin, perhaps two or three others. But that history cannot rival the history of Italy and of the Low Countries. German painting cannot be said, in its past or present state of mediocre attainment, ever to have rested on historic laurels. In a measure the 19th century has brought forth some men above the ordinary, as Menzel, Leibl, Lieberman, Lenbach ; but even the best cannot be placed in the same rank with the best men of foreign schools. Even Durer was more of a thinker than a painter, and only really great in his engraving; while the art of Holbein is rather Dutch than German in its essential quality.

Teutonic art was slow to feel the influence of the art currents surging about on the south and the west; and while it at last heeded the examples set, it could not free itself from the enmeshing net of the literary and philosophic habits of the German mind. Durer alone was an independent creator; Holbein and, less vigorously, Lucas Cranach the Elder did show signs of individuality, but two centuries elapsed before a German poet arose to take up the work of the German painter for it is not unjust to say that it was Goethe who sounded the clarion call in the valley of dry bones.

There, however, we lay the finger on the very spot of the inherent weakness of German art. It is, and always has been, a literary art per se. German painters have always listened too much to what was said by outsiders. Lessing, Winkelmann, Hirt, Goethe, down to Max Nordau have told them how to paint — and the poor painters, overpowered by so strenuous an argument sink themselves in attempting to realize the profound theories of their masters, the critics. Even today, the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche inspire the highly symbolic, brutally dissecting art of the moderns. German art has always been mentored, from Goethe to Ibsen — even as the weakness of Royal Academy art lies in that it is Ruskinized.

And if the dictates how to paint could not be comprehended, the German artists, following the technic of others, at least heeded the literary pedagogues in what to paint — and the art of the raconteur found expression in pigment, and became a reflection of the village tales of Keller and Reuter. By some obtuse process of reasoning they sought their salvation in the written word — and we have the painted anecdote, or landscapes, not as found in nature, but as described by the poets, even as Knille’s favourite ” Venus and Tannhauser ” is only an operatic scene.

German art has always been an affair of the studio, until in the latest secession movement a revolution took place against discursive painting, and a desire was shown to be alone with nature — but what would you? Did it give us nature with its thousand intimate promptings? By no manner of means. On the contrary, exaggerating the faults of the plein air school of France — just as Michelangelo’s followers exaggerated his own exaggeration — they went to the other extreme, and, abandoning ” soul ” and ” sentiment,” they gave glaring contrasts of coloured daubs and farfetched light-effects — in short, a chemical colour-analysis.

It is beyond cavil that where Art follows dictates, it comes to naught. Art must be free and spontaneous, and inspired by life, not words, to be lasting.

Hence we see that the art of the last century had scarcely reached its height when decay set in ; and the paintings, of which so many are in the Museum, however popular in their day, have ceased to stir or even attract us.

It is true that beginners in art appreciation, not able to understand the beauties of light and colour, grasp with avidity at a tableau which tells them in so many words what they ought to call beautiful — the story, the sentiment, the sentimental, the pathos. And that such art, no matter how much we may deride it, for the ignorant is still the last word to be uttered is proved by the following of the English Royal Academy and the modern French anecdotal painters — but its too earthly realism, devoid of any idealistic inspiration, soon palls and cloys.

German painting has never risen to the dignity of a school in its highest sense. Here and there individuals have sporadically arisen who in their personal way have asserted themselves. A few primitifs, Meister Wilhelm of Cologne and Wohlgemuth were followed by Dürer and Holbein. After these there has been a Hans von Marees, poet and mystic, who had a temperament that had much in common with that of Burne-Jones. Bocklin, one of those unaccountable figures that spring up like Turner, was the one genuine romanticist. Menzel, a realist and draughtsman, trod more conventional paths ; but with Piloty in command at Munich, and Anton von Werner at Berlin we can only recognize groups of men among whom a Meyer von Bremen, a Defregger, a Bodenhausen are preeminent.

We have not, however, the right to condemn their anecdotal art altogether. What seems to us the height of conventionality was not such in the time it was executed. It was then genuinely expressive of a prevalent order of ideas intelligently held and sincerely believed in, a view of art as positive and genuine as any other set of principles — of which we may not have grown tired. And if the art of these men had in it the seed of weariness for those who are simply out of sympathy with its aim, its ideal, it does not in the least reflect on the sincerity, the honesty and even the accomplishments of its practitioners.

The hope of German painting lies still in the future and there are indications that this future may not be far distant.

So then — we stand before the choice to fill an entire volume with a recapitulation of the stories we find depicted by the German paintings, or allow you to make your own story from each canvas, and these are so plain that he who runs may read. We will, therefore, refer to such paintings as stand out eminently, and group together what remains.

A most interesting painting is a primitif, assigned to the Austrian school of the 15th century. This painting, bought in 1871, was on exhibition for a short time after the Museum was opened in Central Park, but was strangely withdrawn, and has for twenty-five years reposed in the storage room. Fortunately it is again on exhibition, and presents a delightful problem for experts. There is much in favour of ascribing this diptych to a Teutonic school, although its first impression is one of northern Italy. Since no stories of hagiology correspond with the scenes portrayed, these may be representations of Bible characters, executed in more or less native surroundings, which we know to have been the Germanic point of view, as it was the Flemish. Thus the first scene may represent John the Baptist in the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts ; and the second scene on that panel his beheading, trans-posed in such surroundings as were familiar to the artist or suggested by his imagination. The right wing may represent the miracle of water being turned into wine, and the reviving of the daughter of Jairus by Christ, dressed as a Bishop — a presentation which is not rare in early German wood engravings. The characteristic dress of the young gallants in the foreground may perhaps form the readiest means to place the locality of the artist, and it should not be surprising if some Swabian or Bavarian master with Italian training were found to whom this unique altarpiece may be assigned.

The ” Head of an Apostle ” would be a rare example of Dürer’s tempera painting, if its attribution, rightly queried in the catalogue, were correct.

We come with full assurance to the ” Portrait of a Man,” by Hans Holbein, the Younger (1497-1543). It represents a young man, twenty-two years old according to the inscription, which also bears the date 1517. He is dressed in the costume of his period, of the wealthy, fashionable class. The background, which is the angle of a wall, has a frieze around the top, probably derived from an engraving of Mantegna’s school. The painting is done in oil on paper, which is very unusual, although a picture in Basel, ” Adam and Eve,” by Holbein, of the same year, is also done on paper, and probably points to Holbein’s experimenting with this material.

According to the date Holbein was but twenty years old when he painted this portrait — evidence enough of his wonderful precocity, as it exhibits in every way his essential characteristics of design, and contour of the figure, so fully exemplified in his ” Georg Gyze,” now in Berlin. In Holbein we find a portrait painter of wonderful capacity for exact and absolute truthfulness to life. When he depicts a man he thinks of nothing else but his model ; he isolates him; he places him before us in unbiased, objective truth, with unfailing acuteness of individualization. There is no ” make-up ” in Holbein’s portraiture. There are no preconceived ideas which he wishes to deploy, but as plainly as is possible with the brush he depicts natural refinement or ugliness as the faithful historian records the facts. But he was good contemporaneous copy of a work Holbein painted during his stay in England.

Lucas Cranach, the Elder (1472-1553), Durer’s and Holbein’s contemporary, was only second to them in proficiency, following, however, more the linear design which is apparent in all the work of the men who combined painting and engraving. His work looks fantastic, odd in conception and execution, sometimes ludicrous, and has always an archaic appearance. Still his pictures, with their Flemish technic, are typical of his time and country, and possessing strong individuality may well be ranked among the most interesting paintings of the German school. Like Dürer he was an intimate friend of

Luther whose portrait he painted several times more than a historian; he was at the same time a powerful artist, whose manual skill is incomparable. The delicate perfection of his execution is marvellous. His vigorous drawing that equals that of the most learned masters has an almost classic restraint, which is wanting, indeed, in the work of Dürer. In his colouring, only surpassed in richness by Titian, he has a keen sense of the values of tone relations. His flushing flesh palpitates with the life-blood coursing under the skin.

Nor did the exact portrayal of the human countenance include the whole of Holbein’s talent, although it constitutes an essential part of his genius and of his work. He also had a taste for beautiful allegories, and his idealism led him to decorative paintings of supreme excellence, notably his two friezes, the “Triumph of Riches,” and the “Triumph of Poverty.” These decorative paintings are unfortunately all destroyed, and are only known from the drawings that have been preserved. Still he was not a dreamer of dreams, his flights of fancy were not of long duration, and willingly did he come back to his delineation of men and things as he saw them. A less powerful personality than Durer, he was a far superior painter, and never has he been surpassed or even reached in his supreme place in Germanic art.

A ” Portrait of Archbishop Cranmer ” is a fairly facility, and in any style or manner he chose to imitate. His ” Surprised ” and ” Christ healing the Sick ” illustrate this to the paint.

With the 19th century there started in Germany a so-called ” revival of art,” which like many another revival did not amount to much. It was brought about by the study of monumental painting in Italy, and the taking-up of the religious spirit in the pre-Raphaelite manner. There are no examples of this movement here.

Towards the middle of the century came that senseless imitation of detail in nature, carried out along the lines of the severest academic technic. Some artists became followers of the romanticists of Frame! until only towards the close of the century called ” The Poacher’s Death.” It is said that when this painting was exhibited, in 1847, in various places in Germany the impression produced by its realistic presentation was so profound that a successful movement was started for a humane change in the German game-laws.

Andreas Achenbach (1815-1890) was a strong and vigorous naturalistic painter, sometimes even forsaking the mannerisms which held sway, and to which his son Oswald (1827-1905) more closely adhered. Each has an Italian subject here. A ” Holy Family,” by Karl Müller (1818-1893), Professor at the Dusseldorf Academy, presents a peculiar mish-mash of incongruous styles.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805-1874), transplanted the academic Dusseldorf methods to Munich, where he became the director of the local Academy. His ” Crusaders before Jerusalem ” is an example of his preference for historical compositions; also demonstrated by his successor Carl von Piloty (1826-1886). In the latter’s ” Thusnelda at the Triumphal Entry of Germanicus into Rome,” the story is told with transparent fidelity, while the best part of the art of the period, its thorough and careful drawing, must be appreciated. Friedrich Voltz (1817-1886), in his ” Landscape with Cattle,” gives a punctilious performance in a perfunctory way.

Mihaly de Munkacsy (1844-1900), the Hungarian by birth, is only placed in this coterie because of his having studied at Munich — his style was more French. He was by far the strongest man that came from the Munich school. His genre is spirited, powerfully suggestive, and eliminating its didactic proclivities by the force and boldness of the technic. His ” Last Days of a Condemned Man ” established Munkacsy’s reputation, and his ” Christ before Pilate ” has spread his fame world-wide. His ” Pawnbroker’s Shop,” in the Museum, gives an excellent idea of his manner.

Franz von Defregger has a ” German Peasant Girl,” such as he frequently put in the setting of his meetings between peasants and city-folks. Gabriel Max, also an Austrian, the painter of the well-known ” Lion’s Bride,”‘has here “` The Last Token — A Christian Martyr,” of equal popular interest and message of sentiment. Max is a splendid animal painter, whose figure work is adequately expressive.

Hans Makart (1840-1884), whose enormous ” Diana’s Hunting Party ” has for long been one of the clous of the Museum, was thoroughly French in ideas and methods. The life-size figures disport themselves with grace and abandon, the colouring is rich and harmonious. Eugene Jettel (1845-1901) had the impressionable mind which acquired influences wherever they touched him. His Marsh in North Holland ” has the Dutch atmosphere, just as many other landscapes of his brush reflect Barbizon manner. A Bohemian, with Munich training, Vacslav von Brozik (1852-1901), was more interested in historical work, his huge canvas with ” Columbus at the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella ” being arranged like the dramatic climax of a theatrical scene. C. G. Hellquist (1851-1890), of Swedish birth, was also a Munich man by training and choice of manner, as may be seen in his historical canvas, ” Peter Sonnavater and Master Knut’s opprobrious Entry into Stockholm in 1526.”

Among those in the Berlin wing of the Dusseldorf school we find first the one in whom all its tenets have been most scrupulously concentrated. This is Meyer von Bremen (1813-1886), whose canvas, ” The Letter,” needs no explanation, as to subject nor execution. Carl Becker (1820-1900) was more ambitious in his literary godfathers,. taking a scene from one of Goethe’s plays for his subject, while Gustav Richter (1823-1884) aims still higher in an allegory of ” Victory.” Plain and matter-of-fact in its presentation, and attractive in the colourful rendition, which lithography has copied to a nicety is Riefstahl’s (1827-1888) ” Wedding Procession in the Bavarian Tyrol.”

Adolph Schreyer (1828-1899), although a pupil both of Munich and Dusseldorf, was not always bound with their shackles. When Schreyer’s name is mentioned the mind reverts to an almost endless army of Arabs galloping across the plain, all put upon convenient parlor-size stretchers and all painted from the same palette. But he did better work. He was, when he cared to be, a painter and a draughts-man of bold conception. In his early period, when he painted Wallachian scenes, the Cossack of Russia, or the peasant of Poland, he was more sincere in his work than when later le pot au feu made him turn out his Arabs at the dealers’ command. A single Wallachian example, ” Abandoned ” — a horse standing by a wrecked wagon over the bodies of his mate and his master, on the marshes of the Danube — and several Arabian subjects give ample opportunity to compare his different styles.

There are six or eight examples of the work of Ludwig Knaus. His most popular picture has always been ” The Holy Family, Repose in Egypt ” — although one need not to expect any local colour on account of the subtitle. It is a charmingly sweet ensemble of a lovely woman with pretty cherubs. Anton Seitz and Ferdinand Schauss have also to tell their stories in paint, and do this with simplicity and sentiment without any clumsiness of expression. F. A. von Kaulbach, who after Lenbach’s death took the lead as the German portrait painter, was more colourful and versatile than Lenbach, but without the latter’s powerful, characteristic features. An ideal ” Girl’s Head ” is the example of his brush in the Museum.

Only two of the men who at the present day are instilling the hope of the generating of a national school are represented here. Hans Thoma has a canvas ” At Lake Garda.” Thoma looks backward towards the days of Altdorfer, who in some respects was the forerunner of Turner. He is the most German of painters and a son of the Black Forest, a dreamer and a poet, a master of idyls. More tranquil than Bocklin he takes refuge in a certain archaic ingenuousness, and he presents his naive and charming landscapes with a delightful and almost childlike freshness. His colour may be occasionally dull, and his drawing defective, he still depicts his rural themes with loving beauty.

More vigorous than he is Heinrich Zügel, the most brilliant painter of animals, who has an astonishing technic and a wonderful freshness of colour. His Oxen going through the Water ” reminds one of the Spaniard Sorollay Bastida in its forceful presentation and vivid execution.