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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Carl Spitzweg

Sunday Stroll, 1841, Carl Spitzweg
The Sunday Hunter, 1845, Carl Spitzweg
I've always had a deep respect for an artist who can make me laugh. I like to laugh. In my own work, I've always tried to inject an element of humor when it's appropriate. Seldom is it a "rolling on the floor laughing" type of humor. Sometimes it doesn't even amount to an actual laugh but a subtle, knowing "been there, done that" type of humorous identification with the figure or scene depicted. Sometimes the humor is more "funny" than humorous, designed more to evoke a simple smile than a laugh. That's why I immediately identified with a mid-19th-century German painter named Carl Spitzweg. He's often classed as a Romanticist, a landscape artist, genre painter, illustrator, or satirist. Actually, he was all of the above.

The Violinist on the Roof, 1845, Carl Spitzweg
The Drunkard, 1836, Carl Spitzweg
One of the hallmarks of Spitzweg's paintings is his penchant for poking fun at amateur enthusiasts. His family of hikers depicted in Sunday Stroll (top), painted in 1841, certainly does not depict veteran hikers. The same could be said for his Sunday Hunter (above, right) from 1845. I guess that was in the days before camouflage outfits were popular. Similarly, Spitzweg's 1845 Violinist on the Roof (above) makes up for his apparent musical ineptitude with amorous good intentions. I wonder if this painting inspired the musical, Fiddler on the Roof. However, Spitzweg's 1836 depiction of The Drunkard (left) is not the image of an amateur. His imbiber seems to be quite adept and experienced in his calling. Although some of Spitzweg's humor gets lost in the passing of the years and in translation from German to other cultures, this one would appear to be timeless.

Spitzweg appears to have been a "Sunday" portrait painter.
Carl Spitzweg was born in 1808, the second of three sons of a wealthy merchant. Don't worry about the name of his birthplace, you couldn't pronounce it if I told you. Suffice to say it was in southern Germany. Spitzweg had a special affinity for amateurs in that he had once been very much an amateur artist. His father forced him into training as a pharmacist. However, during a period of illness, Spitzweg began to paint. He is an amazing example of what a determined artist can attain while being totally self-taught. In 1833, Spitzweg's father died, leaving him a substantial inheritance which he used to gain his independence as an artist. He began by studying the Flemish masters then traveled to Prague, Venice, Paris, London, and Belgium studying the works of various classical artists in refining his technique and style.

The Poor Poet, 1839, Carl Spitzweg

The Painter in a Forest Glade under
One Umbrella Lying, 1850,
Carl Spitzweg
Besides painting amateurs doing what they know least, Spitzweg was also fascinated with eccentric characters around him, perhaps because he seems to have been one himself. He also considered himself something of a poet so his most famous work, The Poor Poet (above) from 1839, is especially knowing as he depicts a doddering old man, resting beneath an umbrella and a leaky attic roof, counting syllables using his fingers. Spitzweg also provides us a peek into his life as an artist as well, not to mention his own foibles. In his The Painter in a Forest Glade under One Umbrella Lying, (left) from 1850, Carl Spitzweg presents us with what may be something of a self-portrait of an artist so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature he lacks the energy to try to capturing it in his chosen medium. Or, perhaps, just getting to this lovely site may have left him too exhausted to paint. In any case, again and again, we see in Spitzweg's paintings his adoring love for the deep Bavarian forests near where he grew up.

The Portrait Painter, 1855, Carl Spitzweg. Judging from the glasses and
the artist's stature, this would definitely seem to be a self-portrait.
One of the easiest comparisons to make in studying the work of Carl Spitzweg, is to the work of the American artist, Norman Rockwell. Their humor is very much the same, subtle, warm, and clever. Their painting style is quite comparable, allowing for differences in period and differing nationalities. Even their physical appearances are similar. Rockwell was professionally trained, of course, whereas Spitzweg was not, which may, in fact make his work all the more remarkable. These comparisons are especially noticeable when you look at their similar, yet distinctly different handling of a single title, The Bookworm (below) seen on the right as done by Spitzweg in 1850, and in the lower-left image by Rockwell (painted as a 1926 Post cover).

The Bookworms. Notice the subtles of humor--Rockwell's bookworm wears two different
colored shoes while Spitzweg bibliophile clutches a book precariously between his knees.
The Intercepted Love Letter,
1860, Carl Spitzweg
In Spitzweg's Susanna in the Bath and the Altos (below) we glimpse Spitzweg, the practical joker, as the two "dirty old men" creep up on the lovely bathing beauty only to discover, to their immense despair, that upon closer inspection, she is, in fact, "sinfully" ugly. In a similar vein, and this time in a ruse worthy of Rockwell himself, we see The Intercepted Love Letter (left), from 1860. Look carefully, you'll see the letter in questioned being "lifted" from its intended recipient by the nosey neighbor upstairs. With a slightly wider format and the Post masthead across the top, the two artists; work would be virtually identical. This leads me to wonder if Rockwell may have gotten a few ideas, or at least a few laughs from the work of Carl Spitzweg.

Susanna in the Bath and the Altos, Carl Spitzweg


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