At the turn of the nineteenth century, Central Europe is the seat of the cultural movement known as Romanticism, defined in 1798 by German critic Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) with particular regard to poetry. Named after the romance, a medieval literary form, the movement asserts the power of feeling over reason, and nature over artifice. Mysticism and, by extension, a taste for the fantastic and the sublime proliferate. In the visual arts, this results in a flowering of landscape painting and, combined with popular political sentiment as the region endures a period of French rule, influences a nationalist revival of medieval culture in literature, art, and architecture. Conflict with France resumes in the second half of the century, this time resulting in a unified Germany (1871).
In the 1830s, Belgium achieves political independence from the Netherlands; the two countries assert their independent cultural identities by drawing from their respective artistic legacies. In the last years of the century, Belgium is a center for avant-garde art, particularly Art Nouveau.
At Austerlitz, in Moravia, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) triumphs in the “battle of three emperors,” crushing the armies of Russian czar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. It is a decisive battle: having vanquished the Austrians and gained control of Vienna, Napoleon then defeats the Prussians at Jena and enters Berlin in 1806. Ruling virtually all of Central Europe—and, beyond that, most of the continent—Napoleon forms a league of German states known as the Confederation of the Rhine. Members disavow their loyalty to the Holy Roman Empire, which, after almost nine centuries of rule, falls in 1806. The Confederation ends after Napoleon’s retreat from Russia (1812–13); abandoned by his former allies, he falls from power in 1814. At the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), the rulers of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain meet to redraw the political boundaries of Europe; they form the German Confederation (1815–66), a league of thirty-nine states, to replace the defunct Holy Roman Empire.
German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810) produces Morning (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), an allegorical canvas from a series depicting the four times of day, conceived around 1802. Above an infant lying in a meadow, the figure of Aurora rises, holding a light-giving lily. Runge’s career, though brief, is influential: in addition to advocating a “new landscape,” in which elements from nature appear as symbolic expressions of subjective ideas, Runge is a prolific color theorist, and engages many of his contemporaries—notably, painter Caspar David Friedrich, philosopher Henrich Steffens, and writers Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—with his artistic theories. Among these is the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, appealing to several senses (exemplified in Runge’s early plans for one version of The Four Times of Day series to be placed in an architectural setting and accompanied by music). TheGesamtkunstwerk is closely associated later in the century with the work of composer Richard Wagner and, at the fin de siècle, with the Art Nouveau movement.
Skeptical of the classical canon and academic art instruction at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, recently closed by the French occupation, artists Franz Pforr (1788–1812) and Friedrich Overbeck (1789–1869) found the Brotherhood of Saint Luke (Lukasbrüder). Members of the fraternity adhere to the artistic goals of fidelity to nature and emotional purity, drawing inspiration from late medieval and early Renaissance painting, notably the works of Dürer and Raphael. When the Akademie is reopened in 1810, many of its students are denied readmission, and the Lukasbrüder relocates to Rome, settling in the abandoned monastery of Sant’Isidoro; here the artists emulate a monastic lifestyle of poverty and chastity, wearing long cloaks, growing their hair long, and, above all, imbuing their art with a fervent sincerity of emotion and religious faith. This lifestyle, combined with the artists’ spiritual subject matter, earns them, around 1817, the pejorative nickname Die Nazarener: the Nazarenes. In Overbeck’s canvas of 1811–29, Italia and Germania (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich), two female figures rendered in smooth Raphaelesque contours clasp hands and join foreheads in a pious allegorical union of Mediterranean and Northern traditions.
Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859) Grimm publish the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), a collection of folktales gathered from the oral storytelling tradition. The Brothers Grimm are scholars, linguists, and philologists, and their publication, compiled while their country suffers the yoke of Napoleonic rule, is a patriotic attempt to preserve a vital aspect of Germanic culture. Not originally intended for young readers, early editions of Kinder- und Hausmärchen reflect in many ways the violence and danger of everyday life in contemporary Germany.
In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars (1800–1815), the middle classes of Germanic Europe embrace a style of fine and applied arts known, by the early twentieth century, as Biedermeier. Named after Gottlieb Biedermeier (Bieder, in German, means “plain” or “unsophisticated”), the pseudonym used from 1854 to 1857 by Ludwig Eichrodt (1827–1892) and Adolf Kussmaul (1822–1902) to publish parodic verses in the Munich journal Fliegende Blätter, Biedermeier style in its purest form is characterized by simplicity of design, economy of materials, a preference for comfort and convenience, and, in painting, a taste for unpretentious genre and domestic subjects. The style flourishes until popular uprisings of the working class sweep Europe in 1848.
At the final downfall of Napoleon, French painter Jacques Louis David (1748–1825)—First Painter to the former emperor—goes into exile in Belgium, where he remains until his death. There he establishes a significant portrait practice, particularly among fellow exiles (see the portrait of General Étienne-Maurice Gérard, 65.14.5). Brussels painter François-Joseph Navez (1787–1869), David’s pupil and the successor to his legacy in Belgium, joins his master in exile. Navez’s style fuses David’s naturalism and the idealization of Ingres, whom he also admires.
Architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) designs the Royal Guard House (1816–18), Royal Theater (1818–21), and Altes Museum (1822–30) in Berlin, three Neoclassical structures that contribute to Berlin’s burgeoning reputation as “the Athens on the Spree.” Schinkel also admires Gothic architecture, which he sees as the supreme expression of Christian spirituality and Germanic artistic genius. He designs several buildings in this style, notably the Friedrich-Werdersche-Kirche in Berlin (1824–30; now the Schinkelmuseum) and the English Tudor Schloss Babelsberg (1833–48), near Potsdam.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) paints Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), the first of three canvases on the theme of moonwatchers (later versions: Nationalgalerie, Berlin and MMA 2000.51). The subject, with its atmospheric treatment of landscape, is a favorite of the Dresden painter; it also represents a contemporary fascination with the moon, its symbolism, and its various evocations of yearning, contemplation and serenity, the divine, and the realm of magic and fantasy. Moonlight and its mystical appeal proliferate in the art, music, and literature of the Romantic era: in the Nocturnes for piano (1827–46) of Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) and the “Moonlight Sonata” (1801) of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), in the poetry of Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), the autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–33) of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), and the Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night, 1800) of the poet Novalis (1772–1801), who writes, “More heavenly than those glittering stars we hold the eternal eyes which the Night hath opened within us.”
At the London Conference of 1830–31, European powers recognize Belgian independence from the Netherlands, and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is crowned king of the Belgians as Leopold I (r. 1831–65). A final treaty of Dutch-Belgian separation is prepared in 1839. Art produced in these regions during the next several decades reflects a sharpened sense of national identity. Dutch artists such as Johannes Bosboom (1817–1891) execute church interiors and figure paintings in the manner of seventeenth-century masters, while Belgians such as Antoine Wiertz (1806–1865) and Gustaf Wappers (1803–1874) emulate—with an intensity that ranges from admiration to idolatry—the art of Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), leading master of the Flemish Baroque. Many painters of the Romantic movement, with which Wiertz and Wappers are closely associated, take inspiration from Rubens’ dramatic, often grandly scaled compositions of historical and religious subjects, free brushwork, and sensuous colorism. This inspiration may be found in Wappers’ Episode from the Belgian Revolution of 1830 (1834; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and Wiertz’s Triumph of Christ (1848; Musée Wiertz, Brussels).
The French king Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–48) orders a portrait of himself from German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–1873); the commission secures immediate fame for the artist, who goes on to become one of the most sought-after state portraitists in Europe (see his portrait of the Empress Eugénie, 1978.403).
Working in Paris, Adolphe Sax (1814–1894), son of Brussels wind-instrument maker Charles Joseph Sax (1791–1865), patents the saxophone. In the saxophone, Sax creates a new family of musical instruments: a hybrid of single-reed woodwinds, such as the clarinet (see 53.223), and keyed brass instruments, such as the trumpet. For a time, Sax enjoys a virtual monopoly in the supply of wind instruments to French military bands.
At the height of its powers, the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in Germany rivals Paris in attracting students from all over Europe and abroad. The Academy professes extreme naturalism in painting, as in the Hussite Sermon (1836; Nationalgalerie Berlin, loan to Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf) of Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), a leading figure of the Düsseldorf School. Despite its fifteenth-century subject matter, the high finish and explicitness of detail with which the figures of Jan Hus and his believers are rendered reflect the contemporary aesthetic of naturalism.
German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) publishes the essay Oper und Drama, in which he describes the artistic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. Wagner strives for this ideal in his own operas, uniting music, drama, and stagecraft in productions of unprecedented scale; to this end, he has a theater built in Bayreuth for the performance of his work, fitted with every available technology of the time. It is here, in 1876, that Wagner premieres the completed operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Ring Cycle—dramatizing a thirteenth-century German epic about the Nibelungs, a legendary family possessing an enchanted hoard of gold.
The Austro-Prussian War leads to the expulsion of Austria from German state affairs. In the following year, Austria reorganizes as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Hague School of painting flourishes in the Netherlands. The Hague painters render Dutch land- and seascapes as well as the everyday lives of local peasants in a style based on close observation of nature and inspired by Dutch masters of the seventeenth century as well as the contemporary Barbizon School in France. Foremost among the Hague painters are Jacob Maris (1837–1899), Anton Mauve (1838–1888), who specializes in animal pieces (see 14.40.810), and Jozef Israëls (1824–1911), known for his depiction of Dutch fishing communities.
Prussia defeats France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), instigated by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) with the aim of a unified Germany. Bismarck triumphs, and William I, king of Prussia (r. 1861–88), is crowned emperor of Germany (r. 1871–88) in the same year. As a result of the war, Germany gains the greater part of former French territories Alsace and Lorraine.
Disillusioned by an early career as an art dealer, the young Dutchman Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) undertakes religious studies with the intention of becoming a minister. He abandons this profession as well and, after a visit in 1879–80 to painter Jules Breton in northern France, dedicates himself to painting the somber realities of peasant life. In search of further artistic development and a clientele for his work, Van Gogh moves to Paris in 1886.
At the request of the bereaved Marie Berna, Swiss-born artist Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) paints the first of five versions of Island of the Dead (26.90). Böcklin spends most of his career in Italy where, with a circle of artists known as the “German Romans,” he steeps himself in the imagery of the classical world and pagan mythology. He uses the classical vocabulary in paintings that evoke a dreamlike world and suggest a deeply personal, often ambiguous meditation on human struggles and anxieties. The elusiveness of meaning in many of Böcklin’s works is evident in the artist’s alternate titles for Island of the Dead: “A Still Place,” “A Silent Island,” and later, “Island of the Graves.” Böcklin’s oeuvre is closely associated with the Symbolist movement, which promotes an aesthetic that rejects realism and turns instead to the subjective world of the imagination.
James Ensor (1860–1949) paints Christ’s Entry into Brussels (Getty Museum, Los Angeles), a major example of the Belgian artist’s frequent depiction of religious subjects in a subjective manner that suggests an expression of personal, political, and social anxieties. As in the threatening, inhuman mob accompanying the figure of Christ (in part a self-portrait), Ensor’s use of masks, allegorical figures, and caricatures highlight rather than conceal the symbolic message of his paintings. Ensor is a prominent member of the Symbolist movement in Central Europe and an important forerunner of Expressionism. In 1883, he is among the founding members of Les XX (Les Vingt), an exhibition society dedicated to promoting avant-garde art; after falling out with its secretary, Octave Maus, he detaches himself from the group.
Belgian architect Victor Horta (1861–1947) designs the Hôtel Tassel, his first major work in Brussels, at that time a hub of avant-garde art and design. Horta is among the first architects to use cast iron and glass as the main structural and decorative elements in domestic architecture. Taking inspiration directly from nature, he employs organic motifs—notably the interlacing coup de fouet (whiplash)—and curvilinear forms, not only in the design of buildings, but also in their entire program of interior decoration. Other mature works by Horta include the Hôtel Solvay (1894) and the Maison du Peuple (1895–99; destroyed 1964), both in Brussels. While Horta is sometimes called the “father of Belgian Art Nouveau,” the role is shared with several important contemporaries, such as the multi-talented Henry van de Velde (1863–1957), architect, painter, and designer of furnishings, fashion, jewelry, and objets d’art; architect/designer Paul Hankar (1859–1901); and the members of Art à la Rue, a movement dedicated to bringing art to the masses.
Funded by critic Octave Maus (1856–1919), the Belgian avant-garde society Libre Esthétique holds its first exhibition in Brussels, with the aim of unifying the fine and applied arts and integrating them into everyday life. Featured there are paintings by French artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat, illustrations by Englishmen William Morris and Aubrey Beardsley, and decorative objects by C. R. Ashbee. Libre Esthétique and its predecessor, Les XX, are major proponents of the Art Nouveau in Belgium.
“Central Europe and Low Countries, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10®ion=euwc (October 2004)