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The Rowers

Hans von Marées1873

Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The start of Marées’ mature period was marked by his one and only fresco cycle. At a center for marine zoology founded by the Darwinian Anton Dohrn not far from Naples, there was a room used during the day for study and in the evenings for social events. Together with the young sculptor Adolf Hildebrand, who made the frames, Marées created nine frescos to cover all four walls. Instead of the expected mythological and allegorical scenes, they were devoted to images of the landscape and day-to-day life of the surrounding area: fishermen setting out from the coast by Ischia, the circle of friends and artists around Dohrn in front of an osteria, people in an orange grove. Wide picture spaces, narrative abandoned in favor of timeless calm, seriousness and simplicity of concept and composition, the search for stature and relevance: this approach took subject matter that was normally only considered worthy of genre painting and raised it to the level of the ideal. The frescos were finished within the space of one summer. Preparations took the form, among other things, of large colored sketches that were drawn from life while the relevant section of the fresco was already being plastered; these then had to be painted with extreme rapidity while the skim was still wet. On the finished fresco, the group of rowers ended up in the corner of a section intended for a portrayal of the sky but where the rowers, however, dominate by virtue of the dynamic of their parallel diagonals. Marées left the thirteen large oil sketches behind in Naples as being of no further interest; it was only after his death that Hildebrand saw to their safe-keeping, giving five to the National-galerie.

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