Few artists permeated 19th century German culture like Carl Spitzweg. Some twenty-plus works by Spitzweg have found their way to Milwaukee. This one-of-a-kind exhibition evokes affection, love, humor and other emotions that translate easily to our current age.
In a dark attic, the old alchemist has set up a distillation apparatus. On the oven shown, partly cut to the left, there is a large copper kettle that is possibly filled with a liquid. A tube connects the top of the kettle with the glass globe that the alchemist has placed on a stool. The pipe is long enough for the steam to cool and condense. He is curiously waiting for the distillate to start dropping into the glass globe. The large copper kettle looks like the type of still that is used in alcohol making. The construction of the vessel and the figure’s red nose might indicate that he is producing liquor in secret, a process that would have been considered an alchemistic “transmutation” of the non-precious to the precious. Since Spitzweg briefly worked as a pharmacist after he had studied chemistry, he would have been familiar with this process.
From the reflections on the glass globe that light up the bald forehead of the alchemist, we can assume that the light is coming through a small dormer window. Spitzweg selected a dark room and sparse light to paint the image in the manner of Rembrandt, as he had studied his work intensively.
An Official is taking a late-morning break from his office work, and is looking with great affection at his fosterling that has just produced a red flower, almost as if he was in love with it. The only hint at the type of work the official does are the bundles of papers that are lying in heaps on the floor. Perhaps those at the wall are ready to be taken to the archives, while the bundles in the foreground must still be checked.
In his own handwritten sales record of this painting, Spitzweg added the words "sage: Staatshamorrhoidarius." This refers to a title of a satirical picture story by Franz von Pocci, who was a contemporary of Spitzweg in Munich. The story caricatures a civil servant who suffers from "pains below" because he sits all day.
Spitzweg simply loved remote but sunlit corners of old cities like the one he chose here to provide us a snapshot. The title of the painting, The Everlasting Bridegroom, seems to question the seriousness of the young man's proposal. The scene has an audience. It was really witnessed by the painter when he visited the city of Bern in Switzerland, and neighbors followed the meeting too.
From one of the windows upstairs, glove maker Adele Schalusy, envious as her name suggests, looks down on the couple, and a floor below her there is yellow faced dressmaker Neiderl, also jealously watching the couple. Perhaps he too is interested in the beautiful young woman. At the well, two laundry women are stretching their necks to see what is happening. And Saint Florian who protects people from the danger of fire has his eyes on the two main characters of the comic scene, too- hopefully not to extinguish the fire of love.
When Spitzweg lived in Switzerland during the early 1840s, he worked intensively on this subject, painting it in different compositions until he finally settled with the composition shown here. He then repeated it several times. The painting today is as popular as it was then. It inspired Horst Wolfram Geiáler (1893 - 1983) to write a book with the title The Everlasting Bridegroom: A Spitzweg Novel, published in 1917.
A man has come to present a young woman with a bouquet of flowers. He has dressed up, and wears a light frock coat and white gloves. He has just taken off his gray top hat to greet the young woman. The hair of his forehead is curled. In a slight bow he is standing at the foot of the steps to a city house of apartments and shops. The day's newspaper is in his back pocket. The beloved lady prettily dressed in blue, white and red has just left the house and walked through the arch of ivies to go and fetch water in two large pails at the St Florian fountain in the alley at left. She looks surprised by the young man's intent, has lowered her eyes and the gesture of her right hand seems to express indecisiveness. It both points at and wards off the beautiful bouquet in Biedermeier style, apparently made of everlasting strawflowers. But her cheeks are red, so she must be a little excited.
Light has found its way through the dense plants and buildings into this very quiet corner where three people are enjoying life in different ways, or simply look as if they are enjoying it; this painting can also be interpreted as a presentation of the difference between the loneliness of a single person and the joy of being with a loved one.
Compared to the couple in The Everlasting Bridegroom, the pair shown here at the upper left has come closer to each other. She allows him to kiss her on the cheek, with her right shoulder touching his left. He is giving her a small bunch of roses, flowers of love. Did he perhaps pick them from the rose bush in the garden?
High up on the ruins of a derelict fortress overgrown with vines, a soldier in a colorful uniform is on guard duty. Watching the wide-open country where no enemy whatsoever is detected, he has been standing on guard for hours on end. It is no wonder that he is overcome by exhaustion, and yawning heartily. The country is at peace, and has been for a while, which is good news. White laundry can be seen drying in the warm breeze. A sparrow has made its nest in the canon, and is curiously watching the guard who stands as straight, holding on to his rifle.
In an unusual landscape format that accentuates the open countryside, the guard's solitude, and the comical aspect of the situation, Spitzweg succeeded in creating an amusing scene in happy and peaceful times. His painting technique is exceptional; especially in the texture of the sandstone and the depiction of the plants.
The artist created three versions of The Bookworm. This one was sold by the artist in New York through his art dealer, H.W. Schaus, and ultimately was acquired by Milwaukee industrialist Rene von Schleinitz, who, upon his death, donated the painting to the Milwaukee Public Library. The painting is now on permanent loan to the Grohmann Museum. Spitzweg called it Librarian, but the 19th century German public called it The Bookworm. The term is derisive, and was used to describe someone who has eaten his way through books, and is laughed at for being a bookish but unrealistic person. Whether Spitzweg wanted viewers to associate this type of person is unclear for he did not title it Bookworm, although he undoubtedly could have.
The painter takes the viewer into a library of the second half of the 18th century, decorated in rococo style. The librarian's dress is also of that age. The old man is standing at the top of the ladder, nearsightedly reading in a book. Another open book is in his right hand. He holds a third one under his left arm, and with his knees the fourth. Here, written works become part of the librarian's physical existence, making him a "bookish" person in the real sense of the word. He is reading in the "Metaphysics" section of a large library.
A ray of sunshine is falling through the window on the reading librarian, the open book and the bookshelf: it adds "enlightenment" to ancient metaphysics, the science that researched general world principles, and creates a new metaphysics that is in search of understanding by asking the question "What can I know?" This was the achievement of one of the librarian's contemporaries, philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804). But we have reason to doubt that Spitzweg's librarian is "enlightened."
His face seems to express a lack of understanding, and his clothes show that he is of pre-revolutionary times. His knee breeches, or "culottes," were a symbol of the "ancient regime" and conservatism ever since the French Revolution. Revolutionaries chose to wear trousers and called themselves sansculottes - those without knee breeches.
The artist painted the lower part of the ladder rather blurred and less clear. We do not know how high it is although it apparently reaches up above the clouds into the sky and has left behind the celestial globe. The librarian may think he has achieved great heights but really he has only climbed a few steps on a library ladder.
This marquetry of Spitzweg's Bookworm is a fine example of the beautiful "wood inlay pictures" produced by Buchschmid & Gretaux during the mid-20th Century. The "BG" featured at the lower right of this inlay picture is a trade mark representing the highest standard of this type of workmanship available. These plaques were created as a tribute to some of the best-known German paintings.
Each marquetry was completely crafted by hand using the wood from Germany's Black Forest. Each of the partners had specific roles in the picture-making process. Gretaux was the artist who created all the wonderful designs used for the inlays, while Buchschmid was the craftsman who handled the wood and wood veneers taking care of the production of each picture. Although the same design might be used more than once, each picture is a unique work of art. No wood inlays have been produced by this famous team since the early 1950s, thereby increasing the value of all the existing marquetries.
In his attic, the poet is lying on his mattress. He does not earn enough money to buy himself a proper bed. In Spitzweg's time, the umbrella was a fashionable accessory for middle-class citizens when they appeared in public, protecting them from rain and sunshine. The symbol often appears in caricatures of that era. Spitzweg painted a variety of umbrellas, not only in his three versions of The Poor Poet but also in other works.
It is likely cold, and the poet is too poor to heat his room with the oven. He could use the rejected manuscript there as fuel. The Latin title on it reads "The Third Bundle of my Works," but it will not warm him for long. Despite the adversity, the man is trying to write a new poem. He might have worked on it all night, as indicated by the candle at the left being almost burned completely. The books beside his bed and, the ancient poetic hexameter drawn on the wall at center, support him in his work.
In this first version of the painting, the book leaning at the wall to the right does not have a title yet. In later versions Spitzweg added "Gradus ad Parnassum" ("Step to Parnassus") on the spine of the book. Parnassus is a mountain in Greece and home to the mythological muses. The title most probably is a reference to a textbook on Latin verses by Paul Aler (1656 - 1727). Here Spitzweg perhaps refers to Mephistopheles' Flea Song in Goethe's famous drama Faust.
The most obvious difference between the study and the final painting is the coloration, set mostly by the color of the umbrella that is now green instead of red. This is why the effect of the painting is colder than the study (in the two later versions of the painting, the umbrella is almost black).
These men have clearly known each other for decades, possibly since they were young men living in the same city. When they started to work, they had to move to different places, far away from each other. But they kept in touch by writing letters, informing the other of the latest news and happenings. Both of them have become successful professionals. They have grown older, and rounder. His old friend just arrived with the stagecoach seen in the background. The coachman on the stairs to the right is bringing his suitcase. The friend, well-fed in a warm coat with hat and glasses, prepares to put down his baggage. His old friend is enthusiastically gesturing, greeting him on the steps to his house, wearing comfortable indoor clothes and holding a long pipe in his hand.
Carl Spitzweg often repeated this image, and had different titles for different versions. The Astronomer and The Astrologer are traditional titles but in literature we also find The Stargazer or The Starreader (Der Sterndeuter).
Everything in the painting allows for the conclusion that this is a scene set in the 17th century, and the figures are historic personalities. Spitzweg likely parodies these figures. The man at the telescope is Wallenstein (1583 - 1634) who was a famous commander during the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648). Critical views on Wallenstein claim that he had blind faith in astrology. We do know that he commissioned Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) with his horoscope in Prague in 1608, and that he employed the greedy astrologer Giovanni Battista Senno (1600 - 1656), also known as Senni or Seni, for many years. In the painting Seni at the Dead Body of Wallenstein by the Munich artist Carl Theodor von Piloty (1826 - 1886) from 1855. Seni looks similar to Spitzweg's astrologer though he does not wear glasses. In another painting by an artist who is unknown today, Seni is looking at the night sky with a telescope while Wallenstein is standing at his side. Seni also plays an important role in German author Friedrich Schiller's (1759 - 1805) dramatic poem, Wallenstein. In the second part of the trilogy, titled The Piccolomini, the stage direction for the first scene in the second act reads: "During this enters Seni, like an old Italian doctor, in black, and clothed somewhat fantastically;" the description corresponds with Spitzweg's portrayal of the figure.
Two men are in a room in a tower with a large telescope and a globe to the right. Through the window we can see that the night sky is clear. The thin older man in the background is wearing a long robe and a beard, and his glasses very are thick. They are an attribute of scientists who have weak eyes because they have become well-read over time.
This weird but scholarly old man who is probably the owner of the "observatory" that in which the scene is set. The astronomer is visited by a seemingly unintelligent man who is wearing clothes that seem to be from the 17th century. He is holding his plumed hat in his hand, and with his mouth agape, he is staring at the sky with the telescope.
This painting bears the seal from the House of Habsburg on its reverse. Also known as the House of Austria, it was among the most influential and powerful royal houses of Europe, from which Kaiser Franz Josef reigned.
The inscription reads "Habsburg cameral seal, Emperor Franz Josef, to Court actress Schratt, Vienna." Katherina Schratt was the leading actress of the Viennese City Theatre in the 1870s and was widely known as a friend, confidant, and mistress of Kaiser Franz Josef. The painting was presumably a gift to Schratt from the Emperor.
Also displayed in this gallery is another painting with connections to the Austrian Empire. Spitzweg created Arrival of the Stagecoach for Kaiser Ferdinand, Franz Josef's predecessor.
Scenes of this picturesque corner of the old city of Munich, away from people's noise and business are what Spitzweg loved. Later in his life he had an apartment and studio in this area. The old bachelor got up early to water the flowers on his rooftop garden. Munich's oldest parish church, also called "Old Peter," lies near the Marienplatz. The inhabitant of the garret could be a poet or a writer, but while The Poet is poor, he seems to be rather well-off, if his neat dress is anything to go by.
As in the painting of the Flower Friend, the idyllic scene here looks fragile, too. For Spitzweg repeated his metaphoric views in the birdcages: symbols of isolation, or confinement of his character in the attic. The bird's feathers are of the same yellow color as the dressing gown of the lonely bachelor.
In contrast with the older gentleman in the previous painting, the young man here does not seem to be all that interested in the plants of his window box for they do not look much cared for.He is dressed in Biedermeier fashion. He has folded up the sleeves of his jacket, and put the quill behind his ear. Perhaps he needed a break and a breath of fresh summer air, perhaps he came to see the young woman. A bird in a cage is with him, too. Spitzweg again painted an everyday scene in a remote corner of the old city of Munich, a scene depicting unfulfilled desire.
The interpretation of the image is guided by the birdcage. He is alone and confined in his room; both the young man and the bird have the same posture. Instead of admiring the plants in his window box, the young man’s eyes are fixed on the young woman who is sitting in the dormer across the way, busy with some needlework.
Stagecoaches did not only transport the mail but also were the most important means of traveling for people from the 17th to the end of the 19th century. After the construction of roads in the 18th and 19th century, the average traveling speed of stagecoaches was approximately 6 miles per hour. The horses had to be replaced about every 12 miles. This gave travelers the opportunity to recover from the uncomfortable journey in guest houses at mail and horse stations.
Spitzweg created the first version of the painting The Arrival of the Stagecoach for Kaiser Ferdinand of Austria. In an unconventional format, he succeeded in rendering a complex scene, showing not only the arrival of the stagecoach but also the hustle and bustle in a city by focusing on the activity at the central market.
Three horses are forcefully drawing the coach with four passengers, coming out of an alley and on to the sunny market place. The postman is reining the horses and blowing his horn, announcing their arrival to the inhabitants of the city although about twenty of them are already there to witness the scene.
Except for a young woman who is watering flowers to the right, all of them are watching the arrival and have stopped doing what they did, whether that was work or leisure. Most of the figures that Spitzweg decoratively added to the scene are women of various social strata. To her left, two elegant ladies in fashionable and expensive dresses sit in leisure. One of them is holding a small umbrella to protect herself from the sun (white skin was of utmost importance) and a book. Her dress is indigo blue; perhaps she bought the material from the dyer who is standing at the window to the left and has just hung out blue dyed cloth to dry.
Spitzweg’s violinist—performing a serenade—finds himself perched precariously near the top wrung of a ladder, above the rooftops, engaged in song dedicated to an unseen love interest.
Central to the composition, the violinist wears a military/band uniform: he is bearded and bespectacled in a blue waistcoat with tails and a blue cap with a short bill. He faces a dimly lit window with a flower pot at its ledge, directing his song, and his attention, to an anonymous lover within. Spitzweg places the musician is in a delicate position, as he makes a risky move, both physically and metaphysically.
Beyond this musical scene, the dark grey night sky blends with cathedralesque architecture in the distance. The painting is poetic, musical, and whimsical, much like many of Spitzweg’s paintings.
Some descriptions excerpted from Carl Spitzweg in Milwaukee (Klaus Türk, Ed., MSOE Press, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2015)