Drawn to the simple life

by Victoria James

The French artists of the Barbizon School effectively colonized the small village of the same name in the mid-19th century; some 100 artists watched — and painted — every step taken by the few hundred peasants as they went about their daily tasks. However, an earlier group of German and Austrian artists had gone one step further: They lived the simple life for real.

In 1809, a few decades before the Barbizon painters discovered their particular corner of rustic paradise, a circle of German and Austrian painters moved to Rome and set up house in a disused monastery. Founded by J.F. Overbeck and Franz Pforr, the group called itself the Brotherhood of St. Luke, and lived a life of almost monastic simplicity, performing domestic tasks in the morning and devoting every afternoon to their art.

The quasi-religious lifestyle wasn’t mere affectation. The Nazarenes, as members of the brotherhood were later labeled, aspired to “reform” art by returning to the models of earlier ages — the religious art of the Italian renaissance (particularly Perugino and Raphael) and late medieval Germany (such as the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer). One of their number, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, nursed the dream of illustrating the entire Bible. This had been conceived of as a collective Nazarene project, but was eventually realized, over the course of 35 years, by Schnorr alone.

This eccentric group of artists is the centerpiece of an exhibition now showing at the National Musuem of Western Art in Ueno, Tokyo. Titled “German Romantic Landscapes from the Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden,” the exhibition comprises 103 works by both Nazarenes and those sympathetic to certain of their artistic goals — including the only artist whose name is readily familiar today, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Friedrich, best known for his moody depiction of a man on a mountaintop, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1818), went on to become a key exponent of German Romanticism, the painterly counterpart of the poet Goethe and the composer Beethoven.

If you’ve not heard of the Nazarenes before, well, that’s probably because their paintings aren’t all that good. Critics today speak disparagingly of their unimaginative canvases which are poorly composed and colored.

Their drawings, however, are a different matter.

Not only was Schnorr an especially talented draftsman — one of the century’s best — he was also cresting a wave of newfound respect for the art of drawing. Long regarded as a foundational skill, merely a prerequisite to the creation of a painting, in the Germany of “the Age of Goethe” drawing came into its own as an artistic technique. Dilettante noblemen and women dabbled in the art, while for the middle classes, the drawing lesson had become as indispensable a component of a well-rounded education as the music lesson.

Drawing suited the Romantic sensibility by virtue of its fidelity to the moment. Schnorr, for example, carried his sketchbook and materials with him wherever he went, and many of the works shown here have a spontaneity that suggests they were drawn on the spot. The more worked-over pieces, clearly finished later, possess an almost photographic realism, as in “Priest’s Grape Arbor with View of Olevano, 1821,” one of the 59 drawings here from Schnorr’s monumental “Landscaftbuch” album of 115 drawings made during his decade in Italy. (Clearly Schnorr’s mentality, like that of Romanticism itself, lent itself to monumentality. His Bible project was finally published in Liepzig between 1852 and 1860 and contained more than 240 wood-engraved plates.)

Olevano was to the Nazarenes what Barbizon was to the French artists of a few decades later. A picturesque hill town, it continued to draw German artists throughout the 19th century.

One artist, though, stayed at home — Friedrich, who drew exclusively German landscapes. And in the end, it was his mysterious and fog-shrouded vision, not the bright, sundrenched scenes of the Nazarenes, that best expressed the spirit of their age.