Painted around 1816, Cooper Shop, Old German, 1568 depicts a cooperage from an earlier time—a time of guilds and master tradesmen. The technology—for example, the use of ash wood hoops rather than metal bands—and mode of production speak more to the 16th century than the 19th. As such, Kolbe’s composition may have been co-opted from an earlier print or illustration.
Here, the master cooper is testing journeymen to determine their worthiness to accept his daughter’s hand in marriage. The journeymen toil as the master looks on, judging their every move. This was common in the guild system; masters would prefer to keep the business in their family and often looked for worthy successors to mentor.
This painting is also known as the Cooper Shop that Made History, in that it inspired several artistic and literary works that followed. In 1818, romantic novelist E.T.A. Hoffman saw the painting and was inspired to pen the epic poem Master Martin the Cooper and His Journeymen. In it, Master Martin has a beautiful daughter, Rosa, for whom three men (a painter, a goldsmith, and a nobleman) vie. However, Martin will only accept he who masters the cooper’s craft. Hoffman’s poem, illustrated by Heinrich Schmidt, prompted Franz Ignatz von Holbein to adapt the material into a successful stage comedy in 1925. Further, Richard Wagner used this work as inspiration for his 1868 opera, The Master Singers of Nürnberg, in which the character of the cooper is replaced with a master singer. Indeed, Kolbe’s Cooper Shop made history.