The Golden Age of German Romanticism. Watercolours and drawings in Goethe’s time

L’Âge d’or du romantisme Allemand. Aquarelles et dessins à l’époque de Goethe.
Paris, Musée de la Vie Romantique, from 4 March to 15 June 2008

1. Joseph Stieler (1781-1858)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1828-1830
Lead, watercolour heightened with white - 27.8 x 36.3 cm
Munich, Bayerishen Staatsgemäldesammlungen
Photo : Bayerishen Staatsgemäldesammlungen

They are all here. All those who Nerval said were the sons of this « Germany, a mother to us all ». Yes, every single one, from the best-known – Friedrich, Runge, Carus, Füssli (who was Swiss but spent his career in England), Tischbein, Kersting, Overbeck, von Schadow, Schinkel – to the fifty or so less famous ones : in all, 124 drawings and watercolours representing 59 artists who constitute a remarkably complete panorama of the art of drawing in Germanic countries between 1770 and 1830. It is not surprising that Goethe was chosen, for the benefit of the French public, as the uniting figure embodying this graphic flowering unequalled in German art since Dürer’s era in the early 16th century. Goethe (1749-1832), who was a talented draughtsman at odd hours (besides a superb portrait in lead highlighted in watercolours by Joseph Karl Stieler – ill. 1 – representing him at the end of his life, there is a brown ink by his own hand dating from his stay in Italy (1786-1788) which seizes the dome of Saint Peter’s in the distance as seen from the Pincio gardens, showing in the foreground the Aurelian Wall broken by the Porta del Popolo, overshadowed by the cupolas of the Church of Santa Maria and to the right an obelisk while on the left trees cover the hill) and author of a Treatise on colours in 1810, is indeed the figurehead of what is termed “German Romanticism”. And yet the expression has seen much abuse as the author of The Young Werther’s Sufferings (1774), over which generations of “enfants du siècle” cried, is hard to classify ; indeed he defended Classicism (in the German sense) and Neo-Classicism (whose premises were set out originally by Winckelmann [Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Sculpture and Painting, 1755] while feeling only contempt for the modern aesthetics that were taking off. The abuse is also caused by the need to simplify since it is difficult to relate “the” Protestant Romanticism of the cities in the North to “the” Catholic Romanticism in the South. In fact German Romanticism, more precocious than its French counterpart which drew its inspiration from the former (cf. De l’Allemagne by Mme de Staël [1810] is also fundamentally different due to its scattered centers : Weimar, Dresden, Berlin, Iena, Ulm, etc. Daniel Marchesseau and the guest curator, Hinrich Sieveking, are to be commended for the quality of the works assembled here, a product of patient labour. In the same manner, the Musée de la Vie Romantique should be congratulated for a sober and elegant presentation as well as for the detailed information at the beginning of each room and in the valuable leaflet available to visitors which allows them to enter into the works by going beyond only the pleasure to the eye.


2. Wilhelm von Schadow (1788-1862)
Portrait of the Painter Carl Wilhelm Wach,
c. 1805-1810
Black chalk, heightened with white - 77.3 x 52 cm
Lübeck, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte
Photo : Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte

What strikes the museum-goer the most throughout the visit are the close-ups of the faces. These artists’ self-portraits, turned towards the viewer, seem however to be looking past us towards infinity : for instance, Anton Graff (1736-1813) who, in a work in progress late in his career mixes black and white chalk with charcoal to depict the arrogant pose of the successful artist, unlike Joseph Fürich (1800-1876) who, drawing finely with a lead pencil in 1829, displays his definite command of line as well as his determination under the guise of youthful grace ; and then again The Self-Portrait by Franz Pforr (1788-1812), “strangely protocubist” in style as suggested by Werner Busch in the catalogue ; nor should we forget, among others, that by Theodor Rehbenitz (1791-1861), a lead drawing in the great Germanic tradition handed down by Dürer where the torments of the soul are still discernible despite the precision of the strokes and, at the extreme opposite, that by Johann Christian Reinhart (1761-1847) in which a face from 1785 reveals, in its pose and the firm look, a refusal of the past preferring instead the conquest of the future. Few words can describe the marvellous Self-Portrait for Goethe by Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810), black chalk with white highlights symbolic of the manner the artist adopted to represent himself : alternating between self-affirmation and the quest for an unreachable horizon, Runge – who was supposed to illustrate The Romances of the Rosary at Brentano’s personal request (a portrait of the latter by Ludwig Emil Grimm recalls his importance in the Romantic movement) but died in the process – could appear as the most emblematic figure of this German Romanticism that in France is so often reduced only to Friedrich’s production when speaking of painting. Indeed : if there is no self-portrait – after all expected, and one thinks of the one at the Kunshalle in Hamburg (1802) where he is seen with a patch over his right eye – of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), it is because the curators chose him as the representative of the other face of Romanticism, the one which captures the outside world as a projection of its own sensitivity. One should stop however to admire the amazing sheet by his friend Georg Friedrich Kersting (1785-1847) which evokes his figure from the back, centered in the middle of the page during a hike in the Riesengebirge : his cap covering a head of hair that falls into the easily recognizable right side whisker, the artist is holding his walking stick negligently on his left shoulder and the drawing folder hangs on its tip. An emblematic portrait for its ironic take on Friederich’s art who often depicts his figures from the back (such as Traveller over a Sea of Clouds at the Kuntshalle in Hamburg [1818], Woman with Sunrise from the Museum Folkwang in Essen [1818] and White Cliffs at Rügen from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation in Winterthur [circa 1818]). Other portraits – Heine or the young Mendelssohn-Bartholdy by Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861), Schiller by Johann Gottried Schadow author of a sublime portrait of the painter Carl Wilhelm Wach (ill. 2) which illustrates the poster with his hair blown by the “desired storms” of Chateaubriand’s René, Baron Stein by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872) – are here to remind us, that for the German Romantics a face reveals the unconscious as read through a look, a pose, an attitude… : what the painter Car Gustav Carus (1789-1869), a student of Friedrich’s but also a doctor who wrote extensively on the subject, called the “feeling” [Gefühl] in The Symbolism of the Human Being.


3. Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1741-1841)
Tumulus of Tears, Omen of a New Day, 1832
Bodycolour - 43.3 x 47 cm
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen
Photo : Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen

4. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
The Schneegruben Massif Seen from Hainbergshöh,
c. 1810
Lead, watercolour - 25.7 x 35.8 cm
Private collection

Leaving out the drawings that refer to Nordic mythology or, metaphorically, to political events at the time (such as the Battle of Leipzig by Tischbein where busts of local celebrities watch hares, in lieu of the defeated French, jumping around or also the Tumulus of Tears – ill. 3 – by Schinkel), the other fascinating approach to German Romanticism highlighted by the exhibition is the representation of landscapes.

5. Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839)
Waterfall at Schmadri, vers 1794
Pen and brown ink, brown wash

- 48.3 x 35.7 cm
Lübeck, Museum für Kunst und
Photo : Museum für Kunst und

6. Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825)
The Artist’s Despair before the Greatness of the
Antique Ruins
, 1778-1880
Red chalk and brown wash - 42 x 36 cm
Zürich, Kunsthaus, Grafische Sammlung
Photo : Kunsthaus, Grafische Sammlung

Uninhabited landscapes by Franz Kobell (1749-1822), by Ernst Fries (1801-1833) and by Friedrich (ill. 4) which “evoke the meditations of the solitary person he was” wrote Albert Béguin in his very beautiful work devoted to L’Ame romantique et le Rêve [1] before adding : “Symbolist painting, in which the landscape is never a self-contained unit but a reference to spaces beyond those seized by the painter”. It is true that Friedrich himself said : “close your physical eyes, before seeing your painting first with your spiritual eyes”. Thus the two watercolours Massif des Schneegruben (circa 1810) and the marvellous Owl at a Tomb (circa 1834-1837) in lead, brush and brown ink are structured in this way and evoke a melancholic night scene recalling both the poems inherited from Nights by Young and all the German Romantic figures such as Hölderlin, Novalis, Tieck, Jean-Paul, all explorers of the mysteries and powers of the night, a night which Carus uses to play with light by reproducing the Frauenkirche in Dresden by Moonlight (circa 1824) in a stunning setting. And when the landscape is inhabited, it is to remind us of man’s frailty before a nature which has become the soul of the world : such as The Waterfall at Schmadri (ill. 5) by Joseph Anton Koch which symbolizes, by its layout, man’s relation with the divine. Carus analyzes this divine element in his letters on landscape painting : “Man, when contemplating the magnificent unity of a landscape in nature, realizes his own smallness ;and sensing that everything is in God, he loses himself in the infinite space…”. Thus the countless landscapes, fields and mountains, all deserted and which impose a lateral, or a vertical perception as if they did not have a central focus point. In his own way, and forgetting the natural landscape, Johann Heinrich Füssli also communicates the artist’s helplessness before the “greatness of the antique ruins”… which had just been rediscovered and had been invaded by… nature (ill. 6).

Four emblematic drawings

7. Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869)
Italia and Germania, 1815-1828
Black chalk - 92.3 x 101.2 cm
Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung
Photo : Staatliche Graphische Sammlung

Finally, and without trying to be exhaustive, three works deserve a close look as examples of the theme presented in the exhibition. As we mentioned earlier, German drawing enjoyed two glorious periods : that of Dürer and that of the Romantics. A black ink in pen on lead by Edward Jacob von Steinle (1810-1886) reveals the close ties between the two. Allegory of Art (circa 1818) reaches back directly to Melancholia by Dürer (1514) which, reinterpreted by the Romantics, looks up at Heaven instead of being overcome by the instruments on the ground. This new order shows that the artist has indeed become in these uncertain and revolutionary times the “prophet” so admirably studied by Paul Bénichou [2] and that Hugo described as : “[…]man of utopias/His feet here, his head elsewhere” [3].
Another allegory is the black chalk on paper by Johann Friedrich Overbeck entitled Italia et Germania (ill. 7), a preliminary study for the famous painting in Munich which reveals an important transmission : the Romantics, who until then looked to Italy as the acknowledged source of artistic inspiration, now turn to Germany. And although many sheets still reveal the influence of the Italian model (such as the watercolour by Johannes Riepenhausen , 1788-1860, explicitly entitled Raphel Painting the Fornarina or the veduta by Jacob Philipp Hackert, 1757-1807, a faithful rendering of the panorama of Rome from the Ponte Milvius), it is easy to see that while Italy continued to fascinate it would be replaced by a repertory of German bourgs and medieval images starting in the 1830’s among French artists.
Adam Friedrich Oeser (1717-1799), a Sturm und Drang artist rather than a true Romantic, drew in brush and brown ink, long before Friedrich, a Traveler over the Clouds : a marvellous sheet, operating on a horizontal plane on the page, that is, renouncing the metaphysical symbolism of the painter from Greiswald.

And thus we cannot help but absolutely urge art lovers to visit the Musée de la Vie romantique where they will discover an important aspect of European art history that has been overlooked here in France. Rather than seeing a Marie-Antoinette of little consequence, they would do well to rush here and make sure the pleasures of those happy few who have already enjoyed the show are shared by all. The works on display are well worth it.

Hinrich Sieveking (ed.), L’Âge d’or du romantisme allemand. Aquarelles & dessins à l’époque de Goethe, Paris-Musées, 320 p., 35 €. ISBN : 978-2-7596-0029-8.

Visitor Information : Paris, Musée de la Vie Romantique, Hôtel Renan-Scheffer, 16, rue Chaptal, 75009 Paris. Phone : 00 33 (0)1 55 31 95 67. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 h - 18 h.

Internet Website

Daniel Couty, vendredi 2 mai 2008


[1] Albert Béguin, L’Âme romantique et le Rêve. Essai sur le romantisme allemand et la poésie française, Paris, José Corti, 1933.

[2] Paul Bénichou, Le Temps des Prophètes. Doctrines de l’âge romantique, Paris, Gallimard, 1977 (rééd. Gallimard, coll. « Quarto »)

[3] Victor Hugo, « Fonction du Poète » in Les Rayons et les Ombres, 1840.

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