Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Schadow Knows…..Part One

The term “Impressionism” was originally intended as an insult – as is often the case, the slur becomes the badge of honor, and the original taint of intent is gone.  So it was with the Nazarene Movement, when a group of 19th Century painters decided to aspire to greater spirituality and honesty in art.  The group took to calling themselves the Brotherhood of St. Luke, with some of them moving to Rome and living in the abandoned monastery of San Isidoro

The Nazarenes also thought that the Academic pictures of the time were soulless exercises in virtuosity, and sought to bring art back to a spiritual ideal more in line with the late Middle Ages or the early Renaissance.  The Nazarene movement resulted in a great deal of interesting work, but its philosophical mode of attack was far too stringent for it to last, or for it not to engender long-lasting hostility.

One of the more interesting Nazarenes was Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789 - 1862), a German Romantic painter born in Berlin and son of the celebrated sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow.

Schadow was a soldier from 1806-1807, and left for Rome in 1810 with the Nazarene painters Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869) and Franz Pforr, (1788-1812) among others.  He also joined the Roman Catholic Church, and believed that an artist must believe and live out the truths he hopes to paint. 

Schadow and several Nazarenes were given the commission to create frescos in Pincian Hill,  house of Consul-General, General Jakob Saloman Bartholdy.  The biblical Joseph was set as the theme, with Schadow painting Joseph’s bloody coat and the saint in prison. 

Schadow was appointed professor in the prestigious Berlin Academy of the Arts in 1819.  As the Nazarene Movement ran out of steam, Schadow became a celebrated teacher.  He wrote a wonderful lecture, About the Influence of Christianity on the Visual Arts (1843) and several biographical sketches, The Modern Vasari (1854).  He also painted for churches throughout Germany.

Before looking at some of Schadow’s religious paintings this week, I wanted to first look at this magnificent painting of his step-brother, Felix.  Painted in 1829, this picture is my favorite in the artist’s oeuvre, and simply one of the finest portraits ever painted.

Schadow sought to mimic the styles of the Quattrocento masters, but his coloration is always distinctly Germanic.  His style favors a remarkable realism and a spectacular mastery of drawing.  His surfaces often had an enamel-like quality, along with a simplicity of modeling and composition.

By any critical yardstick, this is a fantastic picture.  Contrast the stark white of the boy’s starched collar against the smooth, peach coloration of his skin.  Also look at how his golden tunic draws attention to the boy’s delicately rendered hair.  Gentle highlights of white are used to underscore the delicacy of his nose and mouth, and the Morocco binding of the book and red highlights of the sky give the figure warmth and vitality.

Scahdow paints his half-brother’s eyes as large and luminescent, while he tapers the boy’s fingers with an almost feminine modeling.  The love inherent in this picture is palpable on the canvas, and it a highpoint of German portraiture.

More Schadow tomorrow.

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