What Germans loved, before they loved Germany

German Romantic prints at the Art Museum

7 minute read
Grimm's 'Old Woman Telling the Fortune a Young Noblewoman' (c. 1825): God, family, friends and pets.
Grimm's 'Old Woman Telling the Fortune a Young Noblewoman' (c. 1825): God, family, friends and pets.
John W. Ittmann, curator of “The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints,” had the pleasantly Herculean labor of combing through more than 8,000 German prints in the Art Museum’s collection to cull out the several hundred pieces on display. It’s apparently the largest collection of such prints in the U.S. and contains rarities not even found in German collections.

So why should any of this matter to you?

One reason we expose ourselves to art, literature, even music, is to learn something more about our own humanity. This is an exhibit of popular art, widely distributed via prints and books; thus it truly represents the vox populi, as opposed to the (possibly eccentric) vision of a single artist.

These prints depicted and celebrated ideals held close to the people’s hearts— ideas of the blood rather than the brain— so they truly represent a national spirit. Family and friendship, religion, love of nature, reverence for the past— each of these ideas finds a place in these prints.

Middle-class piety

To some extent, these may have been a German reaction to the rationalism and progressivism fostered by the ideologues of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquering armies. But I find nothing knee-jerk in these carefully composed prints, so I would maintain that all of these ideas were present in the German states without any prodding from outside forces.

Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Muller’s large etching engraving of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1816) was seen and admired by many more people than ever saw the actual painting. Moreover, in middle-class homes such a large quality print could assume the place that oil paintings held in the homes of the wealthy. It also fostered a cottage industry in Madonna-and-Child images by other artists. These fed the piety of the middle classes in whose homes they hung.

But even a poor villager could purchase a paper “household altar”— although probably not the one by the Austrian lithographer Ferdinand Olivier that’s included in this show. As the name suggests these altars were diptychs or triptychs on flat paper that could be folded into a standing position and set up in the home for private devotion.

Destination: The cemetery

This strain of piety is also on display in “The Days of the Week,” Olivier’s elaborate series of lithographs, which begins with the faithful entering church on Sunday and concludes with a depiction of Salzburg cemetery— the ultimate destination of all those pious Sunday worshippers. If you were famous or lucky, you could be somewhat immortalized in a memorial portrait. Prince Wenzel and the Eberhard Brothers probably never looked better.

I don’t mean to imply that all this piety was tinsel in a shop window. The young artists of the period regarded a trip to Rome as a religious as much as an artistic pilgrimage. They were a world removed from the cultivated travelers of Henry James. Some of them even formed themselves into a “Brotherhood of St. Luke” and took up residence in a deserted Roman monastery, and paintings produced by members of a Nazarene Group can still be seen reproduced as Catholic Holy Cards.

Noble dog

As for the natural world, what better object could there be for love other than the family and your friends? (Remember, Germany as a nation didn’t yet exist.) Some of the show’s most affecting images are artists’ depictions of their families and paintings of male and female friends in solemn communication.

(To be sure, Ferdinard Piloty’s depiction of those gal pals “Germania and Italia” rings a bit hollow today, considering the subsequent tortured relationship these two nations have endured.)

Family pets come in a close third to family and friends; you’ll find a pair of lovingly-rendered portraits of a dog and a cat belonging to Ludwig Emil Grimm (younger brother to the writing Grimms), in which the dog is the very image of intelligence and nobility while the somewhat sinister-looking cat’s portrait bears the inscription “In Fond Memory of the Mice.”

Visions of Pompeii

Love of nature finds expression in a fantastically detailed depiction of the natural world. I say “fantastically” rather than photographically because we have here the same dramatically enhanced depictions of the real world that were seen in artists as diverse as Ruisdael and Salvatore Rosa. The aim is to produce awe and wonder in the viewer, not a usable road map.

Of course an element of reportage is present, and part of the value of a piece like Georg Heinrich Busse’s 1840 etching, “View of the City of Pompeii during the Eruption of Vesuvius in 1838,” is that it gives us some idea of what the partially excavated site must have looked like—allowing for dramatic effect.

Pieces that appear more true to life, such as Wilhelm Friedrich Gmelin’s 1795 etching “Waterfall of Velino near Terni” still manage to anticipate the romantic “grandeur” effects of later painters like Samuel Martin and Thomas Cole.

Panned by Goethe

Philipp Otto Runge’s 1805 series, “The Times of the Day,” although depicting nature— or at least natural forms— anticipates Romanticism’s direct descendant Symbolism and enjoyed the dubious distinction of being slammed by no less a critic than Goethe for being unintelligible.

(Runge had intended his four works as cartoons for four wall-sized paintings that would decorate a pavilion given over to concerts and recitations of poetry. In true Romantic fashion, the pavilion was never constructed.)

Reverence for the past of course takes many forms, from a love of Classical antiquity to an interest in all things Medieval. Folk tales and legends also entered into the Germans’ mix. Sometimes reverence for the past and love of nature overlap when the subject is a picturesque ruin embedded in an overgrown forest or a crowning mountain landscape.

Mind-boggling detail

Two pieces take pride of place in this category. Both are by Eugen Napoleon Neureuther and depict popular fairy tales: “Little Briar Rose” (Sleeping Beauty) and “Popelka” (Cinderella). Aside from their size, they impress by the sheer mastery with which Neureuther has taken entire narratives and boiled them down into a single complex yet harmonious image in which actions occurring over time are presented as a single simultaneously occurring happening.

Again the sheer level of narrative detail in these works is mind-boggling. (The museum provides magnifying glasses for viewers. If you didn’t pick one up on your way in, you’ll be sorry by now.) An interactive has been set up next to the “Sweet Briar Rose” print that highlights and explains the various image clusters.

Death as a con man

Alfred Rethel’s “A Dance of Death from the Year 1848” offers the flip side of all that we’ve seen before. (It also reinforces the notion of reverence for the past: It’s obviously an homage to Albrecht Durer’s famed “Dance of Death” series.) This is a clearly a conservative response to the rising wave of radical sentiment.

The copy on display is a rare broadside edition in which all of Rethel’s illustrations were printed on a single large sheet of paper with accompanying text, probably issued at state expense and posted in public places to convince dissatisfied tradesmen and workers that pipes and beer were better than bullets and bayonets.

Rethel sees Death at the end of it all; in one of the eight woodcuts he depicts Death as a travelling con artist, convincing the gullible crowd that a commoner’s clay pipe is equal to a king’s golden crown by using a set of trick scales. It’s good to be pious and to love your family and friends, but sometimes respect for the past is a weight that’s just too heavy to be borne.

This is truly a show that can’t be taken in with a single viewing. Not since the Arthur Ross Gallery exhibited a complete set a Goya’s “Caprichos” prints in 2006 has Philadelphia had a print show of comparable richness. Yet I’m afraid that “The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints” will come and go pretty much unnoticed. So this is heartfelt call to anyone who gives a damn about the visual arts and the expression of ideas through images: See this show!

What, When, Where

“The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints.†Through December 29, 2013 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Honickman and Berman Galleries, 26th St. & Benj. Franklin Parkway. (215) 763-8100 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation