Scholar of Natural Sciences by Carl Spitzweg

This painting seems harmless, but it is actually satire. Take a deeper dive into the work.

Milwaukee Art Museum

Scholar of Natural Sciences (1875/80) by Carl SpitzwegMilwaukee Art Museum

Specialist satire
Surrounding the scholar (defined as a “specialist”) are a multitude of scientific objects from many different fields: this “scholar” does a little bit of everything but is an expert in none.

The painting satirizes—or pokes dark fun at—a scholar who fails to achieve distinction in any one field. This painting is one of Spitzweg’s most famous works, which were often humorous, making them popular with the middle class.

Areas of study
The objects surrounding the scholar symbolize many different areas of scientific inquiry.

Mummy case: Egyptology

Tropical plants: botany (the study of plants)

Skeletons: anthropology (the study of humanity), evolution, and Darwinism

Globe: geography

Eagle: ornithology (the study of birds) and aerodynamics (the study of flight)

Headstones: history and genealogy

Boxed items from a dig: archaeology

Crocodile: zoology

Science scholar
Some think the science scholar pictured here is a reference to the artist himself. Carl Spitzweg was a self-taught artist who was also a trained apothecary, someone who prepared and sold medicine. Spitzweg was a master of genre paintings, or paintings that depicted daily life.

Old master shadows
The dark color scheme of the painting reflects Spitzweg’s interest in the Dutch old masters, who were known for their shadow-filled scenes.

Small scale
This painting is quite small. Spitzweg often painted on the covers of cigar boxes, so his work as a result was commonly small in scale, even when, as in this case, he painted on paper or canvas.

Credits: Story

Carl Spitzweg
(German, 1808–1885)
Scholar of Natural Sciences, 1875/80
Oil on paper mounted on canvas
22 1/2 × 13 3/4 in. (57.15 × 34.93 cm)
Gift of the René von Schleinitz Foundation
M1962.136
Photographer credit: Larry Sanders

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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