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Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Biedermeier Period

Three Brothers, 1828, Giuseppe Tominz. One can almost feel the brotherly love.
Sometimes when I go delving into an artist and his or her work, I find that artist's work significant only within the context of the period during which they lived. That was the case as I began looking at the work of the Italian portrait artist, Giuseppe Tominz. Insofar as portrait painters are concerned (Italian or otherwise), Tominz was fairly run-of-the-mill. That is, he was good, but not great, adequate for his time and place, successful within the Italian/Austrian/German societies in which he lived and worked, but far from a world-class portrait artist such as his French friend, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Thus he must be viewed in relation to the historic and artistic era we call the Biedermeier Period. This era in occurred in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848 during a period of relative peace and prosperity when the middle class grew and arts appealed to common sensibilities. It began with the Congress of Vienna, which brought an end to the Napoleonic Wars, and ended with the onset of the European nationalism revolutions in 1848. As European peace eras go, it was relatively long lived--one whole generation. As art eras go, it was relatively unimportant except as a fertile seedbed for several of the Modern Art movements late in the century such as Jugendstil, Art Nouveau, and later, the Bauhaus.

The Biedermeier Period was reflected not just in portrait paintings such as Tominz's,
but also in furniture, interior design, architecture, genre and landscape painting.
Like the Romantic Era in western Europe around the same time, the Biedermeier style encompassed virtually all the fine arts, including music and literature. The portrait of Giuseppe Tominz are important simply because they are so typical of the period as to present a broad, open window into the style. Such portraiture includes elements of furniture, interior design, common dress as well as high fashion (mostly in the case of the ladies and that of the Emperor Franz I). In terms of furniture, emphasis was kept upon clean lines and minimal ornamentation consistent with the style's basis in utilitarian principles. As the period progressed, however, the style moved from the early rebellion against Romantic-era fussiness to increasingly ornate commissions by a rising middle class, eager to show their newfound wealth. The same could be said of interiors as a whole, with their fitted carpets, unified window and pier-mirror draperies, and framed engravings in a restrained classicizing style. Architecturally Biedermeier is marked by simplicity and elegance, exemplified by the paintings of Jakob Alt and Carl Spitzweg (as seen in the photos above). One of the most elegant surviving Biedermeier buildings is the Stadttempel in Vienna.

The Sinigaglia Family, 1840s, Giuseppe Tominz
Quite apart from portraits, other types of painting during the Biedermeier Period eschewed pretention in favor of quiet, hometown scenes like those of Viennese-born Ferdinand Waldmüller, one of Tominz's friendly rivals during his years in Vienna. Although many of Tominz's portrait commissions came from very middle-classed families, his work is distinctive in the sense that it also appealed to the upper classes wherever he went. The Sinigaglia Family (above) was a large, wealthy, Italian family in Rome. In Vienna, his admirers included the Austrian Emperor Franz I (below). You can't get much more upper-class than that.

Giuseppe Tominz's two portraits of his most famous (and wealthy) patron in all his fine fashions.
Not that it matters much, but Giuseppe Tominz was born in Gorizia, a small town on the far eastern Slovenian border of the present day Italian boot. The year was 1790; his father was an iron dealer having sired a family of ten other children. He studied first with local artists then in 1809 struck out for Rome searching for a real art education at the Scuola del Nudo (nude school) at the Accademia di San Luca. (That probably wasn't as exotic or erotic as it sounds.) He spent nine years studying and working in Rome during which he also married and started a small family of future artists (both his sons). Then in 1918, Tominz took his family back to his hometown of Gorizia for a short time before continuing on to Vienna and its booming portrait market. His painting, Three Brothers (top), which I would personally term his best work, was painted around 1828 shortly before he moved once more, this time to Trieste, a city and seaport in northeastern Italy situated near the end of a narrow spur of Italian territory lying between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia.

The Italian, Austrian, German portrait artist Giuseppe Tominz.
The portraits of Giuseppe Tominz were not without some interesting innovations. His 1830 double portrait (below) is the first time I've ever encountered a wife posing with a portrait of her (probably deceased) husband. It is marked by the Biedermeier trait of simplicity, the lady pleasantly attired, the setting attractive, yet restrained, with little or none of the emotional baggage one might expect if the painting had been done in a motif of French Romanticism. That's certainly not the case with Tominz's The Artist and his Brother, Francis, (left) from early in Tominz's career around 1818. This one has got to be one of the strangest sibling arrangements (sibling, or otherwise, in fact) I've ever encountered. Why is the painter attired in what appears to be gypsy garb while his (apparently younger) adult brother, decked out in a black velvet suit, hunting dogs on a leash, sits on his knee? I know it's common, even ideal, for the artist to try relating visually the relationships of his subjects in creating group portraits. However, if that's what Tominz was trying to do, he and his brother must have, not only been strange individually, but together had a rather strange sibling relationship.

A double portrait seen in a whole new light, dating from 1830, by Giuseppe Tominz.
Paolo Preinitsch, 1830-35, Giuseppe Tominz.
I love the hat; wonder where I could still get one?


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