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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Johann Friedrich Oberbeck

The Triumph of Religion in the Arts, 1831, Friedrich Overbeck
Art changes and moves on. I think it would be safe to say that at no time in the history of art were the changes so rapid and radical as during the 20th-century. What began with Expressionism moved quite quickly into Abstract Expressionism, which evolved into Minimalism and the end of what's come to be called Modern Art. A new era began, Post-modernism, Pop, Op, Photo-realism, and any number of other "isms" as the century drew to a close. I'm tempted to liken the century to a rollercoaster ride but that would more aptly describe the 19th-century. The 20th-century in art was more like an manned Saturn V rocket launch--3gs of acceleration followed by weightlessness. Artists struggling to stay on top of it all no doubt felt like Astronauts in for a while ride.
Richard Hackett-Reich
I once had a friend and mentor named Richard Hackett (Reich), a graduate of Michigan's Cranbrook Institute of Art during the 1950s. He came of age as an artist during the Abstract Expressionist period, an ambitious, creative, hard-driving, workaholic determined to make a name for himself as a painter. He never did. Art moved on. He didn't. He tried. God knows he tried, virtually anything and everything--an artist-entrepreneur in the best sense of the word. I met him around 1980 as he struggled to establish a company to train artists in producing pencil portraits on specialized content lithographs. I was one of his first. Later, he and his wife traveled the length and breadth of this country in a motorhome, recruiting and training as many as seven-thousand artists to use his lithographs and the other materials his company supplied. For a time, he was fairly successful, but his success came at a price. His marriage failed, his business failed, his finances failed, and in 2008, his heart failed. Try as he did, he could not ride the 20th-century rocket.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck
Self-portrait, 1844
Richard Hackett was much like the German painter, Johann Friedrich Overbeck. Born in 1789, the son of a Protestant pastor, doctor of law, poet, mystic pietist and burgomaster, Overbeck grew up in Lubeck, Germany during the earliest years of the 19th century. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been ministers. Needless to say he was the product of a strict, religious upbringing. Breaking with family tradition, young Friedrich decided he wanted to be an artist. In 1806, at the age of seventeen, he was enrolled in the Vienna Academy where he began his training in the standard, neo-classical, art studies of the day. Already quite accomplished technically as a result of art training derived from his uncle, the headmaster of the local Lubeck gymnasium (high school), Overbeck polished his skills in Vienna, though he began to question the lack of spirituality among the staff and other students at the school. In time, he came to view, European art as having been corrupted since before the French Revolution, discarding most of its Christian orientation. Reflecting his religious background, more and more Overbeck sought to express Christian art as it had been before the late Renaissance (ironically, just before the Protestant Reformation), ignoring or rejecting contemporary influences, in favor of Italian Renaissance painters, up to and including Raphael.

The Adoration of the Magi, 1813, Johann Friedrich Overbeck.
Saint Sebastian, 1813-16,
Friedrich Overbeck.
Overbeck was not alone. Seen as a disrupting presence, he and a group of three or four friends were expelled from the academy in 1810 for their resistance to the then-current classical mode and philosophy of art. As would happen again and again during the 20th-century, by the early 19th-century art had changed. It was vastly different from that which Overbeck had come to know and love from his traditional German upbringing. Not only was he unwilling (or unable) to change with the times, he wished to go back in time, to when the church (albeit the Catholic Church) used its wealth, power, influence, and patronage to rule the art world. He and his friends were not just out of step, but intent on marching backwards.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem (print), 1823, Friedrich Overbeck. The painting appears
to be one of several by Overbeck lost during the war years of the 20th-century.
Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha,
1815, Friedrich Overbeck

They marched backward to the heart of it all--Rome. There, amid the glories of the painted past, Overbeck remained for the next fifty-nine years. He brought with him the unfinished canvas of what is considered his greatest work (now lost), Christ's Entry into Jerusalem (above), completed some thirteen years later in 1823. Overbeck and his friends, Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, and Philipp Veit, took up residence in an old convent where they became known (not always kindly) as the "Nazarenes." They worked hard, embraced holy living, rejected the antique as pagan, the Renaissance as false, and built a severe revival of simple nature, emphasizing the serious art of Perugino, Pinturicchio, Francesco Francia, and most of all, Raphael (not unlike England's Pre-Raphaelites). His St. Sebastian (above, left) is typical of what Overbeck and his friends produced during the early "hungry" years in Rome.

Cycle of frescoes of the Casa Bartholdy, The Seven Lean Years, 1816-17, Johann Friedrich, Overbeck.
In 1813, no doubt to his family's dismay, Overbeck converted to Catholicism. Quite apart from any spiritual motive (he saw it as the baptism of his art), it was a smart move career-wise as well. Nowhere in the world was religious art more readily accepted than in Rome. Along with his fellow Nazarenes, Overbeck began receiving commissions to decorate whole rooms in private palaces with frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible. His The Seven Lean Years (above) from 1816-17 is from one of these commissions. Overbeck's Resurrection of the Daughter of Jarius (below), dates from 1815 as he began his most productive years.

Resurrection of the Daughter of Jarius, 1815, Johann Friedrich Overbeck
Maria and Elizabeth with Baby Jesus,
1825, Friedrich Overbeck
Never in the best of health, around 1826, Overbeck was forced by physical frailty into a sort of working retirement. Fresco painting is a young man's art. From that point on, until his death in 1869 at the age of eighty, Overbeck limited himself to canvas painting, though some of them would seem not to have been all that limited. His Vision of St. Francis, from 1830, was nearly twenty feet wide. Perhaps Overbeck's best work from the "retirement" period is his Maria and Elizabeth with Baby Jesus (right), from 1825--a sort of Raphael meets Leonardo da Vinci. Even Overbeck's "smaller" works were generous in proportions. His The Discovery of Moses (below) is approximately 36 X 48 inches. Overbeck's fresco, The Triumph of Religion in the Arts (top), completed a year later in 1831, was probably seen by the artist as a vindication of his refusal to adapt to the godless present by hearkening back to the scriptural past. I wonder what Overbeck would think of the "spirituality" of the 21st-century.

The Discovery of Moses, 1823, Friedrich Overbeck

Portrait of the Boy Xaverio as
St. John the Baptist, Friedrich Overbeck--
a 19th-century rebirth of Raphael



  1. Thank you for writing this. I stumbled upon the canvas, Mary and Elizabeth with Jesus and John the Baptist, and I'm now using your blog as a semi-literature review source (?) for my paper. There isn't a lot of information online on the painting and the Overbeck himself. I truly appreciate it.

  2. Thank you for writing. I'm glad to help. However, keep in mind that blogs such as mine are secondary sources and as such should be cleared with your instructor of mentor for accuracy and acceptability. In the digital era today, instructors vary quite a bit as to source material. Some are more lenient than others. Some have even refused to accept Wikipedia simply because it is user written. Other instructors tend to decide on a case-by-case basis after reviewing the proposed source material.