Featuring a selection of German paintings from the Grohmann Museum collection with insight on the ‘Heroic School’ of industrial painting.
German Art and Artists in the Grohmann Museum
The history of European art is filled with the names of great Italian, Dutch, Flemish and French painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and Claude Monet. One does not hear as much about great German painters like Albrecht Dürer, Caspar David Friedrich or August Macke.
Germany has produced many magnificent painters, particularly over the last two centuries, and Milwaukee is fortunate to have works by great German artists in the collection of the Grohmann Museum, an institution dedicated to industrial art and artistic depictions of human labor. The Grohmann Museum collection has paintings by such luminaries as Carl Spitzweg, Ludwig Knaus and Max Liebermann. The new Grohmann Museum Archives is also becoming an important resource that is shedding light upon German industrial artists of the early 20th century.
Carl Spitzweg and Biedermeier Art
Biedermeier was a uniquely German genre of art that influenced painting during the first half of the 19th century. This was a period in the wake of the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars when many Europeans (particularly the middle classes) sought assurances that their society was stable and orderly. In Germany and Austria, this became manifest in artistic depictions of everyday life that were unpretentious, often sentimental, and lacking political or social commentary.
Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) is remembered as the greatest of the Biedermeier artists and the Grohmann Museum holds a number of his works. Although educated as a pharmacist, Spitzweg took up painting while recovering from an illness in 1833 and dedicated the remaining years of his life to art. His paintings depict the diverse characters who occupied the various social strata of his native Germany.
The Poor Poet (1837) is one of Spitzweg’s most well-known works. The Grohmann Museum has a study as well as one of three final versions of this painting, which depicts a poor poet in a meager attic room. The destitute bard uses old drafts of his poems to burn in his stove for heat; a tattered umbrella serves to protect him from the rain that drips through a leaky roof. He lays on a mattress, for he lacks a proper bed. To his left are books of verse that serve as inspiration.
Arrival of the Stagecoach (1859) illustrates Spitzweg’s masterful sense of composition. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the bright pool of sunlight into which the stagecoach arrives. To the right, two well-dressed, aristocratic ladies focus their attention upon a rider who announces the coming of the stagecoach with the blowing of a horn. To the left, servant girls—clad in plain, unadorned garments—gather water from a fountain. Near them is an official in a resplendent blue uniform. Thus, Spitzweg includes persons of various social ranks and categories in a familiar scene of early 19th-century urban life that exudes a sense of societal harmony.
Ludwig Knaus, the Düsseldorf School and the Influence of French Realism
Düsseldorf was the home of the Düsseldorf Academy, one of the principal art schools in 19th-century Germany. The painters who attended this academy are known as the Düsseldorf school of painters, many of whom produced detailed and stunning landscapes. Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910) was a student at the Düsseldorf Academy under its famed director, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow (1789-1862). Knaus also studied and worked in France where he discovered the works of the Barbizon artists, a school of landscape painters who were the vanguard of a larger 19th-century artistic movement known as French Realism. Barbizon painters sought to render landscapes in a sincere, unidealized fashion, while other French Realist painters, such as the famous Gustave Courbet, sought to depict the working-classes and their arduous labors in a candid, authentic manner that stood in marked contrast to the idealized representations of the Biedermeier artists.
Knaus’ Potato Harvest (1879)— with its dramatic, mist-covered forest landscape in the background—is characteristic of the Düsseldorf school. The presentation of the peasant family in the foreground shows the influence of French Realism. The mother in the center—wearing the rough, begrimed attire of a simple farm woman—nevertheless appears confident and strong as she cares for her infant while tending the fields. The entire family engages in the difficult work of the harvest, including the aged grandmother who holds her hip as evidence of a long life engaged in back-breaking agricultural chores. Knaus’ composition lacks sentimentality but nevertheless emphasizes the dignity of the peasant family and the resilient familial bonds their labor has created. Unlike the works of Spitzweg and other Biedermeier artists, a strong element of social commentary is clearly evident.
Max Liebermann and German Impressionism
Max Liebermann (1847-1935) began his career influenced by French Realism and in his later years he came under the spell of the French Impressionists, particularly Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Like the French Impressionists, Liebermann loosened his brushwork and applied unblended strokes of paint that presented a rougher, less-refined appearance. While he developed a passion for painting the lives of the working classes in the manner of the Realists, he later shifted toward scenes of middle-class life that became the mainstay of the French Impressionists. He is considered the founder of German Impressionism. Liebermann was particularly drawn to Holland, where he produced many of his most important works.
One of his greatest works is The Flax Barn at Laren (1887), which depicts young Dutch women and men engaged in the difficult job of spinning flax on simple hand machines. The subject presents a powerful visual representation of the tedious, toilsome work these poorly paid laborers perform in the painting. The quick, loose brushwork demonstrates Liebermann’s embrace of the Impressionist style. While the final version of this painting resides in Germany in Berlin’s National Gallery, the Grohmann Museum has an original study of this famous painting produced by Liebermann.
Adolph Menzel, Arthur Kampf and the Rise of German Industrial Art
Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) was arguably the greatest German painter of the 19th century. Menzel’s gritty portrayals of the burgeoning Industrial Age became key components of a movement known as German Realism. In contrast to their French counterparts, German Realists such as Menzel focused particular attention upon the difficult and dangerous conditions that industrial workers experienced.
Menzel’s greatest work in this category is his famous The Iron Rolling Mill (1872-1875). Menzel spent several weeks in 1872 at the Königshütte Iron and Steel Works in the German province of Silesia making hundreds of sketches. While he endeavored to ensure the technical details in the painting were accurate, he also wanted to create an authentic representation of the workers and their demanding, treacherous work. At the center of the painting, workers carefully move a white-hot ingot of steel into the rolling mill, where it will be shaped into a locomotive rail. Teams of workers successively pass the rail from one rolling stand to the next, slowly shaping the hot piece to its desired shape on a dark, smoke-filled and crowded factory floor. The original painting is housed in Berlin’s National Gallery. In 2004, the contemporary German industrial artist Hans Dieter Tylle produced a reproduction of this painting for the Grohmann Museum.
Arthur Kampf (1864-1950) produced a mural in 1900 titled In the Rolling Mill for the town hall of Aachen, Germany. Kampf was influenced to a significant degree by Menzel’s The Iron Rolling Mill. Unfortunately, Kampf ’s mural was destroyed during the fighting of World War II. However, Josef Jünger reproduced a detail of this mural titled Workers Dragging a Red-Hot Iron Piece (ca. 1920), that is now in the Grohmann Museum. In both paintings, the workers, unclad from the waist up, turn away from the slab of hot metal and its searing, unbearable heat.
The Grohmann Museum Archives and the “Heroic School” of German Industrial Art
Arthur Kampf was one of many German artists in the early 20th century inspired by Menzel’s The Iron Rolling Mill. After World War I, a group of about a dozen painters continued to develop artistic interpretations of the Industrial Age and earnestly endeavored to make the industrial landscape a serious subject of art. This included Otto Bollhagen, Ria Picco-Rückert, Leonhard Sandrock, Fritz Gärtner, Franz Gerwin and Erich Mercker, all of whom are represented in the Grohmann Museum collection.
In 2014, the museum acquired the library and archives of Dr. Klaus Türk, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Wuppertal in Germany. Dr. Türk dedicated his career to the study of industrial art and artistic depictions of human labor. This valuable collection of books, articles, images and documents contains many rare and unique sources concerning these and other German industrial artists. It is now the core collection of the Grohmann Museum Archives. Initial scholarly research into this rich collection reveals that German industrial artists of the early 20th century sought to portray German industry in a heroic, often glorious light. Hence, they are provisionally being styled the “Heroic School” of German industrial artists.
These painters coalesced into a movement that in many ways was as distinct and identifiable as more well-known artistic movements such as French Impressionism, German Expressionism and Italian Futurism. These “Heroic” German artists, many of whom have not been studied in sufficient detail, are finally re-emerging from the mists of time. Art collectors and art historians around the world are following with great interest the research that is being done on these artists at the Grohmann Museum Archives.
The German Art and Artists in the Grohmann Museum exhibit is made possible thanks to Dr. Patrick J. Jung.