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[Footnote 6: The Casa Bartholdi has for some years been let as lodgings to a superior cla.s.s of travellers, and is much favoured by the English.
The rooms are not always accessible; the servants have been known to name, as the most convenient time for seeing the frescoes, Sunday mornings, when the tenants are attending the English Church. The Painted Chamber is suitably furnished for daily uses; _The History of Joseph_, which covers the walls, is not too serious a theme to mingle with the common avocations of domestic life: fresco-painting, in fact, is not only a national and an ecclesiastic, but likewise a domestic art.]
[Footnote 7: The Royal Academy Exhibition, Berlin, 1880, contained a large coloured design for the decoration of the ceiling of the Villa Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Thus the joint names over a period of more than half a century stand conspicuous among art-patrons.]
[Footnote 8: Overbeck’s cartoon in charcoal on paper of _Joseph sold by his Brethren_ is carefully preserved under gla.s.s in the Stadel Inst.i.tute, Frankfort, where I examined it in 1880: the width is 11 feet, the height 8 feet, the figures are about 5 feet. The outlines are firmly accentuated; the details sufficient without being elaborate; the figure, as proved specially in the arms, hands, legs, and feet, is perfectly understood; the draperies are cast simply and broadly; the heads of n.o.ble type are impressed with thought. Not a false touch appears throughout; the crayon is guided by knowledge; evidently preliminary studies and tentative drawings must have preceded this consummated product. No wonder that this cartoon made a deep impression; nothing had been seen at all like it in Rome for very many years.]
[Footnote 9: Many are the authors who have written on the Casa Bartholdi frescoes, the chief authorities are Hagen, Forster, Reber, and Riegel.]
[Footnote 10: See among authorities before named, ‘Geschichte des Wiederauflebens der deutschen Kunst zu Ende des 18. und Anfang des 19.
Jahrhunderts, von Hermann Riegel.’ Hannover, 1876.]
[Footnote 11: The cartoon for this fresco is in the Leipzig Museum, where I examined it in 1880. It is in chalk on whity-brown paper, in squares and mounted on canvas; length 15 feet by 7 feet. As a mature study of form and composition it is just what a cartoon should be, but the touch is feeble and poor. Like most of Overbeck’s designs, it has received the tribute of engraving.]
[Footnote 12: The cartoon was acquired for the National Gallery, Berlin, in 1878, at the price of 37_l_. 10_s_. 0_d_.; measurement 6 feet by 4 feet: it has been engraved.]
[Footnote 13: Persistent difficulties are placed in the way of even students who desire to visit these frescoes; the public are systematically excluded from the Villa Ma.s.simo, and on two occasions, when after much trouble I gained orders for admission, the attendant, in accordance with instructions, forbade the taking of notes.]
The life of Overbeck apportioned itself into successive periods of five, ten, or more years, corresponding to the important works from time to time in hand. The painter threw his whole mind into whatever he undertook, and so his pictures in their conception, and even in their execution, reflect the thought and the state of consciousness which for the while held supreme sway. The preceding chapters treat of two periods; the one describes the early times in Lubeck and Vienna, the other presents a sketch of the first decade in Rome. The foundations have been laid; the main principles for the guidance of a true life and for the building up of a soul-moving art have been firmly fixed; and now it remains to be seen how far and in what way the lofty aim was reached.
Overbeck, as soon as his prospects in life became somewhat a.s.sured, married. Little is recorded of the wife: the earliest mention I have met with is in 1818, when the artists in Rome gave a grand fete in honour of the Crown Prince of Bavaria. Overbeck and Cornelius furnished designs for pictorial decorations and transparencies: the guests wore mediaeval costumes, and made themselves otherwise attractive; and we learn on the authority of Madame Bunsen that among the brilliant a.s.sembly “the most admired of the evening was Overbeck’s future wife, a lady beautiful, engaging, and influential, from Vienna.” The marriage, which was not long delayed, proved on the whole happy, though the wife’s delicate health gave constant cause for anxiety, and her other demands on an indulgent husband are said to have provoked the displeasure of Cornelius and other friends. Two children were the fruits of the union: a girl, who died young, and a boy, who lived only long enough to give singular promise.
Overbeck, as we have seen, had, in common with his brethren, given his best powers to “monumental painting.” For this n.o.ble and “architectonic art” he was not without qualifications. He moved in an exalted sphere, his mind ranged among immutable truths, his forms were high in type, his compositions had symmetry and concentration, he knew how to adapt lines and ma.s.ses to structural s.p.a.ces. An occasion calculated to call forth his powers came with the commission to paint in fresco _The Vision of St. Francis_ for the church of Sta. Maria degli Angeli, near a.s.sisi.
Overbeck here, as his custom was, remained obedient to tradition, and yet struck out a new path; he was not content to retrace the footsteps of Giotto or of Cigoli, he preferred to depict the vision of his own mind. He enthrones the Madonna as Queen of Heaven, seated by the side of the risen Saviour, surrounded by the angelic hosts. On the lower earth, also attended by angels, appears St. Francis in adoration, while on the other side kneel reverently two mendicant friars. The picture belongs to the middle period, when the artist had attained the mature age of forty: the style, speaking historically, is that of the grave and severely defined Florentine school as represented by the Brancacci chapel. The fresco has been accounted by some the painter’s masterpiece, and it is p.r.o.nounced by Count Raczynski as one of the few works of modern days worthy of transmission to future ages.
Overbeck, it is easy to believe, while painting on the very spot where St. Francis was in ecstasy, led a life much to his liking. He dwelt within the monastery, and his pure mind, open only to the good, was blind to the dissolute ways of monks who became a scandal to the district. When the fresco was half finished, the master received a visit from his bosom friends Steinle and Fuhrich, and the three strengthened one another as they communed on religion and the arts. Overbeck is known to have had leanings towards a convent life, and at one time, when seriously thinking of taking the vow, he received from the Pope friendly admonition that his true mission lay within his art, and that by renouncing the world his usefulness would be lessened. It can scarcely, however, be doubted that asceticism became so much the habit of his life as to afflict his mental condition, and to impoverish his art. Some critics indeed point to the early picture of _The Seven Years of Famine_ as the origin of a certain starved aspect in subsequent compositions.
Pharaoh’s lean kine have been supposed to symbolise the painter, and the spare fare within the cells of St. Francis served to confirm the persuasion that flesh and blood, in art as in life, must be kept in subjection. Nevertheless, I for one, when on the spot, could not but revere the pictorial outcome; when first I made acquaintance with this plenary revelation of the painter, I had been taking a walking-tour, knapsack on back, through the Umbrian hills and valleys, the birth-land of St. Francis; I had become acquainted with the wall and panel paintings of Giotto, Gentile di Fabriano, Perugino, Giovanni Santi, and the youthful Raphael; and while looking on this heavenly “Vision,” I could not but feel that Overbeck ranked among the holy company. Unlike most modern painters, surely he had not to worship in the outer court of the Gentiles.
Overbeck received repeated solicitations to return to Germany: he was asked in 1821 by Cornelius to take the directorship of the Dusseldorf Academy, and four years later he writes in reply to the further persuasions of Wintergerst and Mosler. He urges his incapacity for the duties: he had learnt painting, he says, in a way difficult to impart to others; moreover, sculpture and architecture he did not understand at all, and as for the business matters he was without faculty. Further difficulties were the health of his wife and the welfare of his son: “every information,” he continues, “I receive from my native country tells me of spiritual fermentations: the sanctuary, insufficiently protected by the law, suffers under attacks, and a proud worldly spirit raises its head and proclaims its wisdom. Can parents be blind to the risks to which they expose their child, till now reared in the most delightful simplicity of belief? Dearest friends, can you give us the a.s.surance that we shall be able to educate our son in the simple Catholic faith which we have learnt to recognise as the most vital and consoling.” Overbeck, it need hardly be added, shrank from the dangers and declined the duties.
But, at length, free from pressing and onerous commissions, he lent a more willing ear to invitations from Germany. Cornelius in 1830 had come to Rome from Munich, the better to complete certain cartoons; with him were a daughter, also his wife, who had under charge Fraulein Emilie Linder, a young lady of Basle, of some means and given to pictorial pursuits. Overbeck, on the completion of his wall-painting at a.s.sisi, rejoined the brilliant art circle of the Roman capital, and from this time dates the memorable friendship between the lady, then a Protestant, and the great Catholic painter. After a winter pleasantly pa.s.sed among congenial spirits, the whole party in the early summer of 1831 set out from Rome and reached Florence. Emilie Linder returned for a time to Basle, while Overbeck, under the care of Cornelius, by way of the Tyrol reached Munich. On the news of their approach in July, the local artists, young and old, a.s.sembled at the gates, outposts had been stationed along the road, and the townfolks gathered by thousands in the streets: from afar the cheering was heard, and then group after group raised the cry, “Overbeck!” “Cornelius!” The entry soon grew into a triumphal march, and, protests notwithstanding, the horses were unyoked, and a company of l.u.s.ty youths drew the carriage to the dwelling of Cornelius.
Twenty years had elapsed since Overbeck, an unknown youth, had quitted his native land; he now returned with a world-wide reputation.
Cornelius, once the sharer of his trials, became the equal recipient of the triumphs; he had just completed the grand series of frescoes for the Glyptothek, and with him were brought the cartoons elaborated in Rome for the wall-paintings in the new Ludwig Kirche. Overbeck, as the guest of his old friend, pa.s.sed happy weeks in Munich. The two painters conferred closely together in the interests of Christian Art, and aided each other in the arduous works soon to be carried out. The artists of Bavaria signalised the visit of the apostle of Christian Painting by a jubilee; they gave in honour of the ill.u.s.trious stranger one of those joyous and scenic fetes for which Munich is famed. The locality chosen was the Starnberger See, a lovely region of hill and lake lying in the Bavarian highlands, bordering on the Ammergau, peopled by peasants with sacred traditions since better known through “The Pa.s.sion Play.”
Overbeck writes gratefully of enjoyment and instruction received through kind friends among the beauties of nature and of art.
The Roman recluse in his journey northwards had widely extended his knowledge of nature. On leaving the Apennines he encountered the Alps, and exchanged beauty for grandeur. His figures were often accompanied by landscapes; but mountains exceeding in alt.i.tude five or six thousand feet appalled his imagination; ma.s.ses of such magnitude could not enter the smaller sphere of his consciousness; hence his northern peregrinations brought into his compositions no Alpine presences; indeed, his habitual serenity and simplicity were disturbed by dramatic stir or storm of the elements, and though his sympathies warmed under novel experiences, his art failed to take a new departure.
I have often when in Munich regretted that Overbeck had no share in the Bavarian manifestations of Christian Art. But that he, the head of the religious revival, is left out was simply his own fault. Cornelius, in 1821, when as director reorganising the Academy, wrote to his friend, asking a.s.sistance; King Ludwig also urged Overbeck to come. But the timorous artist as usual hesitated; he gave at first a.s.sent, conditional however on a delay of three years to complete works in hand; then he pleaded the impossibility of taking any step whatsoever without the sense of religious duty. The King naturally grew weary, and interpreted the equivocal dealing as a denial. Cornelius again in 1833, when the new Basilica of St. Boniface needed decoration, once more proposed that his fellow-labourer in Rome should settle in Munich, but with no avail; the King evidently had little cordiality for the artist, and so employed others on the plea, not wholly tenable, that Overbeck was better in oil than in fresco. Thus the large acreage of wall surfaces dedicated to Christian Art in the churches of Munich and the Cathedral of Spires fell into the hands of Cornelius, Hess, and Schraudolph. It is impossible not to regret that this grand sphere was thus closed to the artist who of all others had most of beauty to reveal. Yet the sensitive painter might have encountered much to disturb his peace of mind. King Ludwig could not a.s.suredly be quite the patron for a spiritual and esoteric artist, and, moreover, there was something too wholesale in the Munich way of going on for a man of limited strength. Overbeck, as I can testify, was about the last person to climb a giddy ladder or to endure a long day’s drudgery before an acreage of wall fifty feet above the ground. He wisely did not overstep his bounds; he had not the wing of an eagle, and preferred to keep as a dove, near to the nest.
Nevertheless, Munich is not without witness to the spirit of the mystic and poetic painter. King Ludwig, himself at least a poetaster, hit upon a felicitous comparison, oft since reiterated, when he designated Overbeck the St. John and Cornelius the St. Paul in pictorial art. The two artists, like the two apostles, had a common faith, though a diverse calling, and their several works testify how greatly the one was indebted to the other. Overbeck brought with him to Bavaria a drawing of exceptional power, _Elias in the Chariot of Fire_ (1827), a composition which reflects as indubitably the greatness of Cornelius as Raphael’s _Isaiah_ responds to the grandeur of Michelangelo. But this lofty strain of inspiration proved transient, and Overbeck, as seen in Munich, truly personates the apostle who leant on the Saviour’s breast. The New Pinakothek is fortunate in the possession of three pictures. One is the _Portrait of Vittoria Caldoni_, already enumerated among earliest efforts; another is the _Holy Family_, ill.u.s.trating these pages; the composition recalls Raphael’s Florentine manner. The third, _Italy and Germany_, must be accounted exceptional because secular; the motive, however, rises above common life into symbolism. Two maidens in tender embrace are depicted seated in a landscape, the one blonde and homely, personifying Germania; the other dark and ideal, as if Ta.s.so inspired, typical of Italia. The intention has given rise to interesting speculation. The German girl leans forward in earnest entreaty, while her Italian sister remains immobile and impenetrable. And herein some have seen shadowed forth a divided mind between two nationalities.
Solicitations had come from Germany, yet, after moments of hesitation, Overbeck held fast to the land of his adoption, and his resolve may not inaptly find expression in “Italia,” a figure which seems to say, “Vex not my spirit; leave me to rest in this land of peace and of beauty.”
But this composition is supposed to speak of yet wider experiences. The painter had given much time to the writing of a romance descriptive or symbolic of human life, wherein he embodied his own personal feelings and aspirations. The two princ.i.p.al characters in this unpublished story are said to be here depicted under the guise of “Italia and Germania.”
The composition thus becomes somewhat autobiographic.
Munich is identified with a friendship between Overbeck and a lady, which ranks among the most memorable of Platonic attachments. Fraulein Emilie Linder we have already encountered in Rome, where an abiding friendship was rooted, and the devoted lady, on separation, soon found occasion to open a correspondence which was prolonged over a period of thirty years. Overbeck was a persistent letter-writer; he wasted no time on society, and so gained leisure to write epistles and publish essays.
And yet it cannot be said that, had he not been an artist, he would have shone as the brightest of authors. On the contrary, as with the majority of painters, he never acquired an adroitness of pen commensurate with his mastery in the use of his pencil; and it is certain that if his pictures had been without adorers, his prose would have remained without readers. The great painter was dest.i.tute of literary style; his sentences are c.u.mbrous and confused; his pages grow wearisome by wordy repet.i.tion. Doubtless his thoughts are pure and elevated, but, lacking originality, they run into plat.i.tudes, and barely escape commonplace.
The prolonged correspondence with Emilie Linder contracts the flavour peculiar to polemics. Overbeck had grown into a “fanatic Catholic”; he was ever casting out nets to catch converts; his tactics were enticing; his own example proved persuasive. Moreover, about his mind and method was something effusive, which won on the hearts of emotional women. At all events, these letters brought over to the Roman Catholic Church the lady and others. And so it naturally came to pa.s.s that the bonds of union were drawn very close when the revered apostle and the devout disciple reposed within the same sheepfold. These letters have a further significance; they declare what indeed is otherwise well established, that the Catholic faith served as the prime moving power in the life and the art of Overbeck.
The painter brought to Munich ten or more drawings executed in Rome with a view to his travelling expenses, and Emilie Linder lost no time in making an offer for the set, to add to her private collection. The artist, with suitable diffidence, hesitated, yet looked on the proposal as an interposition of Providence, and then begged for the money at once, to help him on his further journey into Germany. Though success had delivered him from poverty, and commissions came in faster than he could paint, yet at no time did he roll in wealth; spite of scrupulous economy, he never much more than paid his way; and a few years later, when, for Emilie Linder, engaged on _The Death of St. Joseph_, he gladly accepted beforehand the price by instalments. The correspondence shows a tender conscience, with a humility not devoid of independence.
The art products were in fact of so high a quality that the painter conferred a greater favour than any he could receive in return.
Overbeck left the hospitable roof of Cornelius in Munich at the end of August, 1831, and reached Heidelberg, there to meet with an enthusiastic reception from friends and admirers; there also, after a separation of five-and-twenty years, he saw once more, and for the last time, his elder brother from Lubeck. Close to Heidelberg, overhanging the banks of the Necker, is Stift Neuburg, formerly a monastic establishment, but then the picturesque residence of a family in warmest bonds of friendship with the art brethren. At this lovely spot, I am told by the present owner, “Overbeck stayed several days, and a seat in the garden is still called after him ‘Overbeck’s Platzchen.'” On this rustic bench the painter was wont to sit meditatively amid scenery of surpa.s.sing beauty; the quietude of nature and the converse of kindred minds were to his heart’s content. Within the old mansion, on the walls and in portfolios, are the choicest examples of the artist’s early and middle periods; thus Stift Neuburg in its house and grounds remains sacred to the painter’s memory.
From Heidelberg Overbeck travelled to Frankfort–a city soon to become a focus of the wide-spreading revival. Here the apostle of sacred art made the acquaintance of the poet Clemens Brentano, and fell among other friends and adorers. Philip Veit, his fellow-worker in the Casa Bartholdi and the Villa Ma.s.simo, had just been appointed Director of the Stadel Inst.i.tute, where he executed one of the n.o.blest of frescoes–_The Introduction of the Arts into Germany through Christianity_. Likewise among warm adherents was Johann Pa.s.savant, a painter who in Rome had joined the brethren, a critic who made a name by the ‘Life of Raphael.’
Overbeck was here esteemed “the greatest living artist,” and some expressed “the cherished thought, the earnest desire” that the painter should be secured for Frankfort. But as this proved out of the question, the promise was gladly accepted of the master-work since famous as _The Triumph of Religion in the Arts_. Cologne next received a visit, and the Cathedral choir having advanced towards completion, the a.s.sistance of the Christian painter was naturally solicited: _The a.s.sumption of the Virgin_, now adorning a side chapel, counts among the memorable fruits of the painter’s timely visit to his native land. This northern journey was extended as far as Dusseldorf, a sequestered town already growing ill.u.s.trious for its school of religious painting. Wilhelm Schadow, co-partner in Roman labours, had here, as Director of the Academy, gathered round him devoted scholars, and Overbeck greeted his old friend as a missionary in the common cause. After receiving on all hands respectful adulations which would have turned a vainer head, the traveller bent his steps southwards, and reached Italy by way of Strasburg and Switzerland. On reaching Rome, he writes on the 1st of December to Cornelius in characteristic tone: “You will understand with what lively joy I once more saw my beloved Rome; I therefore will not conceal the painful impression which the distracted opinions and doctrines in the Fatherland have left in my mind, but I feel rest in the persuasion that, through the dispensation of Providence, my lot has been cast in this Roman seclusion, not that I intend to lay my hands idly in my lap, but, on the contrary, I shall endeavour to work with my utmost ability, spurred on all the more by the thought that even here at a distance I shall move in your circle.” a.s.suredly as to professional prospects the pa.s.sage of the Alps had extended the artist’s circuit: the Italian works which chiefly mark the painter’s first period had come to an end; henceforth Overbeck’s labours, though prosecuted within the Roman studio, were for the good of Germany.
Overbeck, in September, 1833, witnessed an event memorable in the history of art: he was present at the opening of Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon, and a few days after he wrote to his friend Veit at Frankfort a circ.u.mstantial account, as some relief to his overwhelming emotions.
The letter is here of interest as evidence of Overbeck’s unshaken allegiance to the great master; if called by others a pre-Raphaelite, he remained at heart faithful to the painter from whom indeed he borrowed largely. Unlike certain of our English artists and critics, he never decried Raphael. He writes: “Know, then, I was present at the opening of Raphael’s grave, and have looked upon the true and incomparable master.
What a shudder came over me when the remains of the honoured painter were laid open, thou canst better conceive than I can describe. May this deep experience not be without good results for us: may the remembrance of the honoured one make us more worthy inheritors of his spirit!”
Overbeck about this time, in letters to Emilie Linder, begins to express ultra views, to the prejudice of his art. He pleads that certain Biblical drawings may have for her more worth because the religious meaning dominates over the art skill. In like manner he writes apologetically concerning _The Death of St. Joseph_. The picture, he urges, embodies not so much a historic fact as an idea, the intent being not to lead the spectator to the real, but to something beyond. The purist painter then proceeds to express his invincible reluctance to study the subject from the side of life; models he had carefully avoided, because he feared that a single glance at nature would destroy the whole conception. It is with sincere regret that I have to record so pernicious a doctrine. Surely the artist’s special function must always be to find out the divine element in nature, and fatal is the day when first he calls into question the essential oneness between Nature and G.o.d. But Overbeck’s peculiar phase of Catholicism marred as well as made his art. Through the Church he entered a holy, heavenly sphere, and his pictures verily stand forth as the revelation of his soul. But the sublimest of doctrines sometimes prove to be utterly unpaintable, and certainly the tenets to which Overbeck gave a super-sensuous turn, in the end perplexed and clouded his art. Outraged nature took her revenge, and the sequel shows that Overbeck so diverted his vision and narrowed his pictorial range that his art fell short of the largeness of nature and humanity.
Northern Germany claimed the ill.u.s.trious painter as her son, and so fitly came commissions from Cologne, Lubeck, and Hamburg. For the great Hospital in this last commercial town was painted the large oil-picture, _Christ’s Agony in the Garden_. This impressive composition represents the Saviour kneeling; the head is bowed in anguish, the hands are raised in ecstasy; below, the three disciples lie asleep, and in the glory of the upper sky amid rolling clouds appears as a vision the angel bearing the cross. I paid a visit to Hamburg in order to judge of a work of which I could find but slight mention. Its characteristics are just what might have been antic.i.p.ated. The drawing is studious, the expression intense, the execution feeble; in short, the technique becomes wholly subordinate to the intention. The conception has Giottesque simplicity: the shade of night brings solemnity, and the longer I stood before the canvas the more I became impressed with the quietude and fervour of the scene.
We find an epitome of Overbeck’s mind and art in a lovely composition, _Lo Sposalizio_. Count Raczynski had as far back as 1819 given a general commission, and at first was proposed as a subject the _Sibyl_, for which the drawing in sepia, dated 1821, now hangs in the Count’s Gallery in Berlin. The figure, pensive and poetic, resembles a mediaeval Saint rather than a Sibyl. The painter afterwards found a more congenial theme in _The Marriage of the Virgin_. The treatment is wholly traditional, the style austerely pre-Raphaelite; the only expletive in the way of an idea comes with attendant angels, lyres in hand. The work was not delivered till 1836, in the meanwhile the first fire had died out, and nature was thrust into the distance. The technique had not improved, the material clothing becomes subject to the mental conception, thus are eschewed _chic_ of touch and surface texture. The colour is indescribable: it pertains neither to earth nor to heaven, and yet it has more of dull clay than of iridescent light. What a misfortune that the gem-like l.u.s.tre of the early Italians escaped this modern disciple!
A thoroughly characteristic letter accompanied the picture. Overbeck having shut himself out from the world, seeks for his creations a like seclusion. He writes to Raczynski: “As you are wishing to send my picture to the public exhibition in Berlin, I cannot refrain from expressing my anxiety. Paintings of this kind appear to me not fitted to be seen by the motley mult.i.tude usually gathered together in exhibitions. The general public are almost sure to measure wrongly works like this, for as the eye is attracted to outward means and is engaged on technical splendours, pictures in which these qualities are held in subordination to higher aims cannot but sink into the shade. The spectator is not in the mood to honour a spiritual subject which has been thought out from a spiritual side. The place in which this picture should be seen is a chapel, or some such peaceful spot removed from disturbing surroundings.”
I now wish to direct the reader’s attention to _The Triumph of Religion in the Arts_, otherwise _The Magnificat of Art_, or _The Christian Parna.s.sus_, or the triumph of Mariolatry. This large and elaborate composition embodied the artist’s best thoughts for ten years in the prime of life, from 1831 to 1840. Accompanying the work was a written explanation, which comprises a confession of Overbeck’s art faith.
The Madonna, with the Infant in her arms, sits enthroned in the upper half of the canvas, and around, in mid-heaven, are ranged prophets, evangelists, and saints. On the earth below stand some sixty painters, sculptors, and architects; the heads as far as possible are taken from authentic portraits. In the midst is a fountain, the upper waters rising into the sky, the lower falling into two basins beneath. The painter explains his meaning as follows: “The fountain in the centre is the emblem of the well of water springing up into eternal life, thus denoting the heavenward direction of Christian Art as opposed to the idea of the ancients, who represented the stream as flowing downwards from Mount Parna.s.sus. Every manifestation of art therefore is honoured so far only as it looks towards heaven. The fountain descends into two mirrors: the upper one reflects heaven, the lower receives earthly objects; thus is indicated the twofold character of art, which, on the one hand, in its spiritual essence comes with every good thought from above, and which, on the other, is derived from the outward forms of nature. This twofold sphere of art is signified by the position a.s.signed to the a.s.sembled artists in relation to the two mirrors of water.”
Overbeck next proceeds to expound his pictorial judgments. He gives Raphael a white robe as symbolic of universal genius, “for as white light contains the seven prismatic colours, so does Raphael’s art unite all the qualities we gaze on with wonder.” Michelangelo sits apart on a fragment of antique sculpture, his back turned alike on the Fountain and the Madonna. I once ventured to ask Overbeck in his studio for some explanation of this harsh judgment; he calmly but firmly replied that he thought the verdict according to the evidence. Still less mercy is shown to the Venetians, and as for Correggio, he is stigmatised as utterly lost. On the other hand, Fra Angelico, the Tuscan School, Durer, and the brothers Van Eyck receive due reverence. But it has fairly been questioned whether the majority of the sixty or more artists here immortalised would thank the painter for his pains. The reading given to historic facts is narrow, partial, not to say perverted, and could content only such ultra critics as Rio, Montalembert, and Pugin.
_The Triumph of Religion_ I have known for more than a quarter of a century, and have heard much of its profundity, spiritualism, and symbolism. But no critic will a.s.sign to the picture the first rank among works of creative reason and imagination; the comparison has inevitably been inst.i.tuted with Raphael’s _Disputa_, in the Vatican, to which it is confessedly inferior. Historically, it finds a place sufficiently honourable by the side of Francia and Pinturicchio. Its avowed merits are considerable; its very scale and the vastness of the labour give importance; the canvas extends to a breadth and height of about fifteen feet. The composition, if not bold or masterly, is careful and thoughtful, the drawing scholastic; the heads are wrought as biographic studies, the draperies cast into balanced harmonies. The execution is steady, without show or fling; the colour, as always, is the reverse of alluring: Venetian splendours are eschewed in favour of pigments thin, dull, and crude. Yet the technique has usual soundness; the materials stand firm and unchanged. The picture has the advantage of a commanding position in the handsome new gallery in Frankfort, and, notwithstanding its defects and shortcomings, must be accounted as among the most memorable achievements of the century.
Overbeck made _The Triumph of Religion_ a propaganda of his pictorial faith, and wrote his explanatory text for the special benefit of young painters. The doc.u.ment concludes with the following emphatic and affectionate appeal: “And now, my dear young friend and brother artist, so ardently striving to excel in the Fine Arts, I have placed a picture before you in which you may wander as in a garden. Here you see all the great masters: behold how the future lies spread before you, like the bright distance in this picture, so that you may be encouraged thereby in your n.o.ble task. Strive to approach the great masters with all the powers of your mind, but know that you can only reach their eminence by steadily keeping in view the goal which I have endeavoured in this painting to place before you. Several of the artists here a.s.sembled may serve as warnings to you: the Venetians went astray as soon as they made colouring the princ.i.p.al object of attraction, and so by degrees they sank in sensuality. The effeminate Correggio proceeded in this career at a more rapid rate, until he had cast aside every restraint of modesty and morality, and gave himself up to unbridled voluptuousness.
Michael Angelo set up the antique as an object of idolatry, and Raphael was tempted to taste the forbidden fruit, and so the sin of apostasy in the fine arts became manifest. In after times, indeed, various attempts have been made to elevate the arts; but as no remedy was applied to the source of the evil, the result proved on the whole unsuccessful. This is also the reason why none of the celebrated masters of late times have been introduced into our painting. In conclusion, you may unhesitatingly adopt as a principle that the fine arts can alone be beneficial to man when, like the wise virgins, they go out to meet the bridegroom in humility and modesty, with their lamps burning and fed with the faith and the fear of G.o.d: only as such daughters of heaven are they worthy of your love.”
Ten years of the painter’s later period, reaching from 1843 to 1852, were dedicated to the Life of Christ as recorded by the four Evangelists. German artists of the modern time have revived the practice of the old religious painters of composing Biblical series, and such a narrative is technically termed a “cyclus.” Overbeck evolved three such consecutive compositions–“The Gospels” in forty cartoons, “The Sacraments” in seven, and “The Stations” in fourteen. The large drawings for “The Gospels” or “Evangelists” I was accustomed to see from time to time while in progress within the studio; none were ever carried out, as the artist might have hoped, in oils, or as wall pictures or tapestries, but all, in common with most of his drawings, have been widely diffused by means of engraving. Overbeck was specially qualified by his habits of mind and literary tastes and antecedents thus to write off his thoughts in outline; his drawings may be compared to “thinking aloud,” and one scene after another reads as consecutive sonnets bearing on continuous themes. The events depicted as a matter of course fall into accustomed routine; they almost of necessity begin with _The Annunciation_ and end with _The Ascension_. Yet Overbeck, while inspired was not enslaved by his predecessors; often are presented novel and even bold conceptions, as in _The Ma.s.sacre of the Innocents_ (1843) and _Barabbas released and borne in Triumph_ (1849). Such designs prove an intellect neither servile nor sterile. Certain other compositions are marred by affectation and sentimentality, traits of morbid moods increasing with years, and which contrast strangely with the healthiness and robustness of the great old masters. Fitly have been chosen to ill.u.s.trate these pages _The Naming of St. John_ (1843), _Christ Healing the Sick_ (1843), _Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem_ (1849), _The Entombment_ (1844), and _The Resurrection_ (1848). Two other ill.u.s.trations, _Christ in the Temple_ and Christ _falling under the Cross_ show variations on the Gospel series. Overbeck may be compared to certain fastidious writers who mature by endless emendations and finishing touches; he loved to recur oft and again to favourite texts, changing att.i.tudes, adding or subtracting figures, episodes, or accessories. His lifelong compositions are as a peopled world of the elect and precious: many of the characters we claim as old acquaintances; the figures come, go, and return again, changed, yet without a break in personal ident.i.ty. They move round a common centre; Christ is their life; they are in soul and body Christian.
These “Gospels” have taken a permanent place in the world’s Christian Art. If not wholly worthy of so large and grand a theme, they yet scarcely suffer from comparison with like efforts by other artists. They have hardly less of unction and holiness than Fra Angelico’s designs, while undoubtedly they display profounder science and art. That they have nothing in common with the Bible of Gustave Dore is much to their praise; on the other hand, that they lack the inventive fertility and the imaginative flight of the Bible of Julius Schnorr indicates that they fall short of universality. These Gospels, it may also be said, pertain not to the Church militant, but to the Church triumphant; not to the world at large, but to a select company of believers. They teach the pa.s.sive virtues–patience, resignation, long-suffering, and so far realise the painter’s ideal of earth as the portal to heaven. Certain spheres were beyond his ken. The marriage of Cana did not for him flow with the wine of gladness; he had no fellowship with the nuptial banquet as painted by Veronese. His pencil shunned the Song of Miriam and the Dance of the Daughter of Herodias; it could not pa.s.s, like the pen of England’s epic poet, with a light fantastic touch from “Il Penseroso” to “L’Allegro;” his walk was narrow as a convent cloister; his art was attuned to the sound of the vesper bell.
Overbeck’s modes of study and habits of work were like himself–secluded and self-contained. His strength did not permit prolonged labour, and his mind was easily put out of tune; yet by method and strict economy of time he was able, as we have seen, to get through a very considerable amount of work. Each day had its allotted task. He rose summer and winter between five and six o’clock, and usually went to church; at seven he took a simple breakfast, then entered his studio and worked on till one. This was the hour for dinner, a frugal meal preceded by the customary grace. After a little repose, action was resumed about half-past two, and continued till four, or sometimes even to six. Then came exercise, mostly a meditative walk; in early times, before the habits of a recluse had grown confirmed, the painter enjoyed an evening’s stroll with choice spirits, such as Niebuhr and Bunsen, but in later years he preferred his own communings, his thoughts turning upon art or finding diversion only among the beauties of nature. Within the house he became abstracted; he wandered about lost to outward surroundings, and would brook no interruption. In the winter evenings, at least in later life, he relaxed so far as to join in some table game; but his hours were early, he supped at eight, then retired to his room for meditation, and was always in bed by ten. General family prayers were not the order of the household; the constant habit was individual devotion in private. The Pope took a fatherly care over the pious artist, and granted him privileges permitted only to the few. And Overbeck was on his part strict and zealous in all Church functions, and neglected no means of building up the Christian life. Each day in fact was so nicely apportioned between religion and art, that the morning and the evening worship blended indissolubly with the midday work.
The bodily and mental aspect of Overbeck is well known. I myself had the privilege of first seeing the painter when in the Cenci Palace, as far back as the year 1848. My journal describes a man impressive in presence, tall and attenuated in body, worn by ill-health and suffering, the face emaciated and tied round by a piece of black silk. The mind had eaten into the flesh; the features were sorrow-laden. The voice sank into whispers, the words were plaintive and spa.r.s.e; noiselessly the artist glided among easels bearing pictorial forms austere as his own person, meekly he offered explanations of works which embodied his very soul, timidly sought retreat and pa.s.sed as a shadow by–the emblem of an art given in answer to prayer and pertaining to two worlds.
The painter, as drawn or described by himself and others, presents an interesting psychological study: no historic portrait reveals closer correspondence between the inner and the outer man. Cornelius delineated his friend at the age of twenty-three: the type is ascetic and aesthetic after the pre-Raphaelite pattern affected by the Nazarites. Fuhrich, one of the fraternity, describes his first impressions: on entering the studio he beheld a tall, spare figure, n.o.ble in head, the hair flowing over smooth temples to the shoulders, the forehead reflective, the calm eye “soul-full,” the whole aspect that of “inner living.” It is added, “at once I felt a soul fulfilment.” Yet another artist-disciple, Edwin Speckter, also leaves a graphic record penned in 1831 as follows: “A melancholy and heart-moving impression has Overbeck made upon me: I beheld a tall, spare man, with thin, light hair, shadowed by a black cap, whose eyes looked forth sadly, as with an expression of unutterable suffering. His mouth contracted at each word into a forced yet sweet smile. He looked just as a timid prisoner, who dreads in every corner to see a spy. Yet in all his speech and ways appeared wondrous humility, modesty, and kindly geniality, which, however, did not attract, but in a strange manner repelled. I hardly dared to open my mouth, and only spoke softly and by way of inquiry. Freely to impart my mind as with others was impossible. My breast felt oppressed, and truly I scarcely knew what to say when he unceasingly begged pardon that he should dare to show his works: he called them ‘insignificant,’ ‘nothing,’ esteemed himself fortunate that people should choose to give commissions to so unworthy an individual, only he pitied the patrons that they had not fallen on a more capable man. And then when I asked if I might come again, he replied, ‘Good heavens! if I would give myself the trouble, he should be only too delighted.’ I could almost have laughed, but with tears in my eyes.”
[Footnote 1: For further particulars as to Overbeck’s wife, “Nina,” see ‘Erinnerungen und Leben der Malerin Louise Seidler,’ Berlin, Verlag von Wilhelm Hertz, 1875. According to this authority the young lady was the illegitimate daughter of a gentleman of aristocratic family in Vienna, from whom she received a dowry. She had come to Rome in search of health, and possessing talents, accomplishments and charms, and being withal a “fanatic Catholic,” she won the affections of the impressible painter. “The young couple,” we are told, pa.s.sed “a soul-satisfying”
honeymoon, and took up their abode in the Villa Palombara, near the Baths of Diocletian. In the private collection of Herr Bockenheimer, Frankfort, I have found an exquisite drawing, wherein the artist is said to have depicted himself, his wife, and two children.]
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