Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Heroic Landscape with Rainbow

Joseph Anton Koch (Austrian, Obergibeln bei Elbigenalp 1768–1839 Rome)
Oil on canvas
42 3/4 x 37 3/4 in. (108.6 x 95.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Anne Cox Chambers Gift, Gift of Alfred and Katrin Romney, by exchange, and Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art Funds, 2008
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 806
The classically-trained painter Joseph Anton Koch was a father-figure to many German-speaking artists who visited Rome in the early nineteenth century. He renewed the genre of heroic landscape painting, which had been established by the seventeenth-century French masters Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Koch’s fame rests on this iconic image, which he referred to as a “Greek landscape.” It is the fourth and final version of a composition he first painted in 1805 (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).
Joseph Anton Koch’s fame as the most important painter of the German classical tradition rests on iconic images such as Heroic Landscape with Rainbow of 1824. He painted four versions between 1805 and 1824, culminating in this final one. The series renewed the "heroic" seventeenth-century landscape tradition of Poussin and Claude Lorrain, and established the artist as the most influential landscape painter in Rome. Koch spent his entire career in that city, except for a brief interlude in Vienna (1812–15). In Rome he became an admired figure and teacher to the next generation of German Romantic painters, among them Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the Nazarines.

Koch did not describe these pictures as "heroic," but as his "Greek" landscapes. Steeped in classical writings and poetry, he drew inspiration from Poussin’s landscapes, even though they were known to him only through engravings. He transcended that influence, however, through an intimate knowledge and acute observation of nature. He gained this experience while growing up in a small Tyrolean mountain valley, and later while crossing the Alps on foot on his way to Rome and Naples in 1794. Equally important were Koch’s vivid impressions of the time he spent on the coast of the Gulf of Salerno on his walking tour from Naples to Paestum in 1795. In a letter of 1814 he discussed this painting’s subject matter: "It is an area, as you would imagine Great (Ancient) Greece. I found the motive in the beautiful surroundings of Salerno on the way to Paestum, with antique towns bathed in striking light. One can also see the sea with mountains in shades of blue in the background. Shepherds and shepherdesses are partly in the brilliant light, partly in the shadow."

Koch brilliantly distilled the multitudes of this rich Mediterranean landscape into a magically ordered universe. From the bucolic foreground the eye is led by clear compositional lines over copses and lush river valleys to sunny plateaus and rugged mountains. Classical and medieval towns built on slopes descend down to the sea on the left. A thunderstorm has just passed. Dark clouds move off to the right. The main feature is the rainbow whose perfect arch shimmers before grey clouds, torn open in various places to reveal the blue of the sky. A shepherd leans on a rock on the left and plays his flute-like instrument. His two companions point to the rainbow and celebrate nature’s restored tranquility after the danger of the storm. Exceptional details abound: the ferns and wildflowers in the foreground are rendered with the poetic exactitude evoking Dürer. A family and boatman in a barge are reflected in the river’s water on the right, which also mirrors a segment of the rainbow. A woman in white accompanied by a child in the mid-distance carries a basket on her head. Small staffage figures move on roads leading to the town’s gate. Sailboats both distant and near float on the sea on the left. Dramatic clouds tear through the sky, along with a flock of white large birds.

Koch usually made three or four versions of his important paintings. The original idea for Heroic Landscape with Rainbow goes back to the artist’s watercolor Vietri on the Gulf of Salerno (Akademie der Künste, Vienna) that he created during his walking trip in that region in 1795. Ten years later, in 1805, he painted alla prima and on rough canvas his first version (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe) for the owner of the Café Greco. Located on Via Condotti and still existing today, the café was the meeting place of the German artists in Rome. That same year, Koch began a much larger and more detailed second version (Neue Pinakothek, Munich) on which he labored for the next ten years, completing it in 1815. A large chalk drawing (Germanisches Museum, Nürnberg) and a small painting (formerly private collection, Hamburg), both of 1806, show the Munich version before the artist’s decade-long reworking. In this work of 1824, Koch returned to the original version of 1805. A precise black ink drawing for this painting is in the collection of the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.

[Sabine Rewald 2012]
The painting is exceptionally well preserved.

The support is a medium-weight, plainly woven canvas, attached to a five-member keyed stretcher using metal sprigs (bent metal wires). The canvas is unlined and appears never to have been removed from its original stretcher.

The support was prepared (probably in Koch’s studio) with a cream-colored ground, which provides a reflective surface for the overlying paint and contributes to the overall luminosity of the image. The ground (which is on the picture surface only, not the tacking edges) was applied with a knife, as seen in the build-up at some of the edges. The painted composition begins approximately 5mm within the ground application, so that there is a thin, cream-colored border at the perimeter visible when the painting is unframed. On this unpainted border can be seen graphite marks and numbers at intervals that must relate to a grid system used to transfer the image. (No grid lines were observed using infrared reflectography, but the artist may have used threads instead.) There is also an illegible notation in pen at the mid-right edge.

Koch executed an extensive underdrawing in pen using a fluid, carbon containing medium which can be imaged using infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Every element of the composition is underdrawn in detail: figures, buildings, foliage (including individual leaves and flowers), even clouds, distant rain, and reflections in the water. Despite the extremely detailed nature of the underdrawing, it is done with great freedom and assurance.

The very full underdrawing is essentially invisible from the surface of the painting, which is worked quite densely. The palette is broad and the painting is richly colored. It is possible that there has been a degree of fading of organic red lake in the rainbows, and in the clouds at the upper right, but this cannot be quantified. Otherwise, the paint is very well preserved. It is worth noting that the brown leaves seem to have been painted as such—possibly in imitation of the discolored copper greens seen in Italian paintings until the end of the sixteenth century.

[Charlotte Hale 2014]
Inscription: Signed and dated (left, on rock): J. Koch / 1824
Gustav Parthey, Berlin (1824–d. 1872; purchased from the artist in Rome in December 1824); Parthey family, Germany (1872–1991; on loan to Märkisches Museum, Berlin, 1951–91 [inv. no. L 51/80]; sale, Christie's, London, June 21, 1991, no. 52, for £836,000 [$1,347,730] to private collection); private collection (1991–2008; sale, Sotheby's, London, May 30, 2008, no. 10, for £1,812,500 [$3,586,268] to Colnaghi, London, for MMA)
Rome. location unknown. "Exhibition of Works by German Artists in Rome," 1825, no catalogue? [see Kunstblatt 1825].

Berlin. Königlichen Akademie der Künste. "Akademie-Ausstellung," September 24–?, 1826, no. 900 (as "Eine Legend in Griechenland").

Berlin. National-Galerie. "Joseph Anton Koch, 1768–1839: Gemälde und Zeichnungen," January–March 1939, no. 49 (as "Heroische Landschaft mit dem Regenbogen [Gegend von Assus in Kleinasien]," lent by Frau von der Osten, Naumburg [Saale]).

Lili Parthey. Journal entry. December 29, 1824 [published in Lili Parthey, "Tagebücher aus der Berliner Biedermeierzeit; herausgegeben von Bernhard Lepsius," Leipzig, 1928, p. 366], recounts a visit by Koch one evening after December 7, in Rome, speculating that Gustav Parthey, her brother, wanted to buy the present work, described as a Greek landscape ("griechische Landschaft"), from the artist for Christmas, calling it beautiful ("schön"), but stating that she and another relative (referred to as Minchen) preferred two other paintings, depicting Swiss and Italian views.

Kunstblatt [supplement to "Morgenblatt für gebildete Stande," no. 56] no. 19 (March 7, 1825), p. 74 [supplement also known as "Schorns Kunstblatt"], mentions this work as being in the ongoing ("permanenten") exhibition of works by German artists residing in Rome, or "Ausstellung der Arbeiten deutscher Künstler" [Exh. Rome 1825].

Lili Parthey. Journal entry. [January] 5, 1825 [published in Lili Parthey, "Tagebücher aus der Berliner Biedermeierzeit; herausgegeben von Bernhard Lepsius," Leipzig, 1928, p. 370], recounts the preparations for Gabentisch (the custom of filling a tabletop with gifts on December 24) and describing her surprise upon entering a room and seeing this work flanked by two others—an Italian view for her (Lutterotti 1985, no. 67) and a Swiss view of the Schreckhorn (Lutterotti 1985, no. 60) for another relative, called Minchen.

Kunstblatt [supplement to "Morgenblatt für gebildete Stande," no. 112] no. 38 (May 10, 1827), p. 151 [supplement also known as "Schorns Kunstblatt"], mentions this painting as being in the "Kunstausstellung," Berlin [Exh. Berlin 1826].

Andreas Andresen. Die Deutschen Maler-Radirer des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts nach ihren Leben u. Werken. Vol. 1, Leipzig, 1866, p. 20, as "Gegend von Assus in Kleinasien".

Ernst Jaffé. Joseph Anton Koch: Sein Leben und sein Schaffen. PhD diss.Innsbruck, 1905, p. 115, no. 35, as "Gegend von Assos in Kleinasien"; dates it 1825.

Wilhelm Stein. Die Erneuerung der heroischen Landschaft nach 1800. Studien zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, 201. PhD diss.Strasbourg, 1917, pp. 89–90, 113 n. 122, as "Landschaft mit Regenbogen III".

Paul Ortwin Rave. Joseph Anton Koch, 1768–1839: Gemälde und Zeichnungen. Exh. cat., National-Galerie. Berlin, 1939, pp. 30, 36, no. 49, states that the plants in the foreground were painted by Ludwig Richter.

Otto R[itter]. von Lutterotti. Joseph Anton Koch, 1768–1839; mit Werkverzeichnis und Briefen des Künstlers. Berlin, 1940, pp. 42–45, 105, 201, 209, 217–19, 244, no. G59, pl. 15, as "Heroische Landschaft mit dem Regenbogen III"; erroneously states that Ref. Kunstblatt 1827 refers to an 1827 exhibition in Berlin.

Dagobert Frey. "Die Bildkomposition bei Joseph Anton Koch und ihre Beziehung zur Dichtung: Eine Untersuchung über Kochs geistesgeschichtliche Stellung." Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 14 (18) (1950), p. 200.

Johann Eckart von Borries. Joseph Anton Koch: Heroische Landschaft mit Regenbogen. Bildhefte der Staatlichen Kunsthalle Karlsruhe Nr. 3. Karlsruhe, 1967, pp. 22, 31 n. 24, fig. 14, provides ownership details since 1939.

Barbara Eschenburg in Münchner Landschaftsmalerei 1800–1850. Exh. cat., Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus. Munich, 1979, p. 221 under no. 54.

Otto R[itter]. von Lutterotti. Joseph Anton Koch, 1768–1839: Leben und Werk, mit einem vollständigen Werkverzeichnis. 2nd ed. (1st ed., 1940). Vienna, 1985, pp. 52, 104, 284, 290, 298, 341, no. G59, fig. 14, calls it the fourth version of this composition; states that the first version (no. G 10; Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, inv. 789) was painted in 1805 for the owner of the Café Greco, a gathering place for German artists in the Via Condotti, Rome; that Koch began a second version (no. G 30; Neue Pinakothek, Munich, inv. WAF 447) in the same year, which was completed in 1815; that in 1806, he executed a large chalk drawing (no. Z 575; Germanisches Museum, Nuremberg, inv. Hz 3210) and a small canvas (no. G10a; private collection, Hamburg) that reveal the artist's original concept for the Munich version; and that for the MMA version, the artist returned to the 1805 composition, making a precise preparatory drawing in black ink (no. Z 144; Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, inv. 1958-2) to aid in the process.

Ludwig Richter with a contribution by Heinrich Richter. Lebenserinnerungen eines deutschen Malers. Ed. Karl Wagner. (1st ed., 1885). Würzburg, 1985, p. 109, calls it "griechischen Landschaft mit dem Regenbogen"; recalls that he saw Koch working on the canvas in Rome between October 1824 and New Year's, noting that he had seen the first version in Munich.

Gisold Lammel. Deutsche Malerei des Klassizismus. Leipzig, 1986, pp. 199–200, fig. 142 (color), calls it the third version.

Christian von Holst. Joseph Anton Koch, 1768–1839: Ansichten der Natur. Exh. cat., Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Stuttgart, 1989, pp. 87, 110 n. 238, pp. 285, 286 n. 1, fig. 57 (color).

Peter Wegmann. Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler: A Romantic Tradition; Nineteenth-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation, Winterthur. Exh. cat., Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Frankfurt am Main, 1993, pp. 97, 99, calls it "Heroic Landscape with a Rainbow," in a private collection; in conjunction with "The Wetterhorn with the Reichenbachtal," 1824 (Oskar Reinhart Foundation, Winterthur, Switzerland; Ref. Lutterotti 1985, no. G60), recounts its early history, including the sale of both works to Parthey; states that "the ideal of freedom may be inherent in the landscapes painted for Parthey," with the MMA canvas perhaps alluding "to the democracy of ancient Greece" and the Reinhart painting possibly representing "a place of freedom in the mountains".

Old Master & 19th Century Paintings, Drawings & Watercolours: Evening Sale. Christie's, London. December 7, 2010, p. 134 under no. 47, in the lot description for the 1806 version being sold from the Pinnau collection (Ref. Lutterotti 1985, no. G10A), calls it "the last version," stating that it is in a private collection.

Sabine Rewald in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2008–2010." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 68 (Fall 2010), pp. 50–51, ill. (color).

Cornelia Reiter. "Nature as Ideal: Drawings by Joseph Anton Koch and Johann Christian Reinhart." Metropolitan Museum Journal 49 (2014), pp. 213–14, 219, 221 nn. 38, 47, figs. 11 (color), 12 (infrared, overall), 13, 15 (infrared, details), states that it ultimately looks back to two drawings, both entitled "Vietri on the Gulf of Salerno" (one, 1795, Kupferstichkabinett, Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien, Vienna; the other, 1800, Metropolitan Museum); analyzes the underdrawing and observes that details accord with sketchbook drawings by the artist.

Colnaghi, Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Ed. Tim Warner-Johnson and Jeremy Howard. London, 2016, pp. 210–11, colorpl. 14.

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