We close our look at Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789 - 1862) with one of the works that helped cement his reputation. Schadow was one of the founders of the Nazarenes, a group that hoped to restore art to a greater spiritual and philosophical purity. It was a case of aesthetics translating (as it often does) into a type of religious devotion. The Nazarene were given the commission to create frescos in Pincian Hill, home of Consul-General, General Jakob Saloman Bartholdy. The biblical Joseph was set as the theme, and Schadow painted Joseph’s brothers returning to their father Jacob with the saint’s bloody coat, and the saint in prison.
One of the fascinating things about the Nazarenes is that their mission so closely resembled that of the better-known Pre-Raphaelites, who followed nearly 40 years later. Like the Nazarenes, they thought the sometimes stilted virtuosity of the great Academic painters had stunted artistic progress. The great irony to me, though, is that the Nazarenes, so little remembered today, came so close to the mark, while the Pre-Raphaelites so widely missed the boat.
Though some of the most magnificently beautiful paintings came from the Pre-Raphaelite experiment, none of the pictures ever looked like anything other than what they were: Victorian-era work inspired by ancient themes. The Nazarenes, on the other hand, often sought to create a closer simulacrum. Schadow, specifically in his Joseph frescoes, very much hits the mark in capturing the composition, feel and depth of the Quattrocento.
Let’s look at the Biblical myth of Joseph and his brothers. Jacob, an elder patriarch, favors his son Joseph over his other sons. These sons burn with jealously and plan to get Joseph out of their way. They first throw him into a pit before selling him as a slave to a passing group of traders on their way to Egypt.
When the brothers return home, they show Jacob the coat of many colors he gave to Joseph, drenched in goat’s blood. Jacob immediately believes their story that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Or, as it is written in Genesis 37:
And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood;
And they sent the coat of many colors, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no.
And he knew it, and said, It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.
And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.
The story of Joseph mirrors others found in the Bible (Job and Moses come to mind) – a holy man suffering great privation or tribulations before entering a happier, more graceful state.
Though a product of the 19th Century, Schadow’s interpretation of Jacob and Joseph’s coat has more in common with the early Renaissance master Masaccio than his near-contemporary Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The figures have a definite musculature, but have not yet become the heroic titans of Michelangelo. And despite mastery of perspective, the overall composition apes the ‘flatness’ of much early Renaissance work.
Also, Schadow eschews any notion of the ethereal or the sublime, which is surprising considering the overarching mission of the Nazarenes. Though the figures are posed to capture a supreme dramatic moment, rich in the possibilities of pathos, instead his tableaux strikes a note of melodrama. Schadow has caught the knack of Quattrocento replication, but also retained all of its drawbacks.
That criticism aside, it is a mighty work. Jacob, upon hearing the news, already begins to rend his clothing, almost before the blood on Joseph’s coat is dry. The old man’s grief will be all-consuming, so self-directed is the intensity of his emotion that he neglects the child at his feet. The flowering tree/vine at Jacob’s back underscores that he is the trunk of this family tree, and that it has flowered considerably.
The women gesticulate wildly but, to my eye, the most successful figures in the picture are the scheming brothers. The brother with the coat looks on as his father becomes consumed with grief – is that a look of shock at the old man’s wild reaction? Or, perhaps, a note of self-satisfied irony? Contrast that expression with the brother on the far left; his expression clearly reads, what have I done?
The landscape behind them, just suggested with a few subtle stokes to indicate hills and fields, does indeed look wild and inhospitable – truly a place of son-eating wild beasts.
With this fresco Schadow achieved the goals of the Nazarenes, but it strikes this viewer as something of a hollow triumph. Pastiche without internal commentary is too often imitation – a reflection of the real thing.