Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Friendship Portrait by Friedrich Overbeck

Friedrich Overbeck, Portrait of Franz Pforr, 1810
(Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
Depending on the cognizance of the viewer, symbolism in art can be regarded as either captivating or aggravating, but incredibly informative nonetheless.   I recently read a fascinating post about the symbolism in Titian's Sacred and Profane Love which the author, H. Niyazi, refers to as a template to approaching a mystery painting.  In my estimation it is a great guide even the uninitiated can benefit from in deciphering the wonderful, and sometimes, ambiguous world of art history.  Romanticism in the German Speaking World is another time in history where understanding the iconography is vital in truly understanding and appreciating the art and the artists of that particular movement.  It may be a bit of a paradox to start a blog post about one of the leaders of the Nazarenes with a reference to a painting by Titian, but muse, as they say, is a strange mistress.  

The Nazarenes were a highly individualized group of students from the Vienna Academy of Art, in 1809, who were opposed to the Classical teachings of the academy and believed inspiration could be found in medieval and Christian art as well as in their Germanic ancestry.  They revered the masters of the Quattrocento, especially Raphael and the 16th century German artist Durer. They sought to apply to their work the views of art and its social role expressed in influential books of the previous generation such as Wilhelm Wackenroder's Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (Outpourings of an Art-Loving Monk). Led by Friedrich Overbeck and Franz Pforr, they swore an oath of brotherhood and formed the Lukasbund (the brotherhood of St Luke) after the patron saint of medieval and Renaissance artisans.  The principle of their program was that art must serve only the highest ends (religion) and never the vanity of courts or wealthy individuals.1

Instead of copying the works of the masters, as instructed at the academy, they believed in working as autonomous artists in order to develop their own individual talents. Overbeck stated that "even if he did not learn to use paint like a Titian, or become as expert in chiaroscuro as a Correggio, the important thing was that he become an Overbeck." They took nature as their true model and each artist followed his own inclinations in pursuit of their common ideals.2  

The members of the Lukasbund  came to regard illusionistic painting as the mark of the artist's subservience to the whims of their patron who wanted them to represent the world as they wanted to be seen.  According to Lionel Gossman, their goal was to reveal the essential truth of things as perceived by the artist's imagination.  Aiming to produce art that is more than pleasing or ornamental they started to use elements to refute the illusion of depth.  In drawing, contour and line were emphasized with a minimum of modeling and their subjects were  placed parallel to the surface of the work.  Pforr and Overbeck had developed a theory of color symbolism that they used as an important component of their compositions but color (local color) was always considered to be secondary to line. They wanted to represent the essential forms of things rather than what they perceived to be their passing appearances.3

In 1810, after the French invasion of Vienna, Overbeck and several other members of the Lukasbund moved to Rome with hopes of finding a very pure community where artists would be welcome.  They set up their community in an abandoned monastery where they proceeded to live like monks, sleeping in little cells, painting, eating sparsely, growing their hair and wearing loose robes - all of which earned them the derogatory nickname "Nazarenes".

The Portrait of Franz Pforr painted by Friedrich Overbeck intended as a friendship portrait (freundschaftsbild) full of symbolic iconography could be used as a visual aid in understanding the unique concepts and ideals of the two artists.  Overbeck wrote to one of his Lukasbruder describing the portrait:
     "He is standing in ancient German garb at an open Gothic window, framed with stone-carved ornaments and surrounded by grapevines.  One looks into a window, where on the opposite side in the background is sitting a young woman busy with knitting and reading in a devotional book.  In front of her on the table are lilies in a vessel and in the window sits a falcon on his perch; in the back one looks down on a Gothic town and beyond that out on the sea.  The whole is meant to represent him in the situation he would be happiest in..."

 According to Helmut Nickel in his review of the work for the Metropolitan Museum Journal, the church spires resemble St. Stephen's in Vienna and the distant seashore and towering cliffs most likely those of the Sorrento peninsula, near Naples.4 The juxtaposition of a medieval German townscape and an Italian coastline points again to the union of Raphael and Durer, "Italia" and "Germania," and, at the same time, to friendship between the Italianate Overbeck and the Germanic Pforr.5  Nickel also mentions the red-wine color of the medieval type of tunic Pforr is wearing, a hue used to indicate the "saintliness" of the wearer according to the color symbolism developed by the two artists.6  Besides the Gothic Cathedral and the color red,there are other references to Christianity as well, including the lily and the lectern by the woman both attributes of the Virgin Mary, the grapevine symbolizing the Eucharist and the cross and skull, Pforr's emblem of the victory of faith over death. The domesticated falcon sitting on his perch could be symbolizing hope or the traditional Christian symbol of gentile converted to Christianity.

The woman in the background is identified as part of the ideal Pforr was referring to in a letter to his Lukasbund friends explaining his wish to spend his life as a Schlachtenmaler  (painter of battle scenes) in a room hung with paintings of bygone ages and with a lovely wife sitting at a table nearby occupied with some domestic work.5 The woman's coloring is also signifying gentleness.

Hans Sues von Kulmbach, Girl Making a Garland, 
reverse of Head of young Man, 1510
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
There is also a cat in the foreground rubbing up to Pforr's arm that seems to have a more problematic explanation. Lionel Gossman suggests in its slightly forward position, the cat is gently related to the female figure behind the sitter. The cat and the falcon are both thought to be the symbols of wilderness tamed and restrained. It could also represent the devil overcome by the Virgin in reference to Guilo Romano's Raphael-inspired Madonna with the Cat.  Although there is no proof of Overbeck seeing the Girl Making a Garland, which was in Vienna and Naples when he was there, Helmut Nickel suggests that he might have had this in mind when he painted the demure female figure sewing behind Pforr.  He also references the inscription of the scroll ,"I bind with forget-me-nots", as a perfect source of inspiration for this friendship portrait. Finally, it might also be Pforr's actual pet that Overbeck gave a place of honor.7

The Romantic notion that art is not supposed to represent reality by imitation but signify the sole of the subject by transformation is achieved masterfully in Portrait of Franz Pforr.  Overbeck and Pforr wanted to purify art from all the illusionistic influences of Renaissance and in its stead wanted to produce what they considered to be a clear and pure art that came from earlier influences in 14th and 15th centuries, literary works of German Romantic writers and above all from their imagination.  There is a sense of mystery and playfulness in deciphering their works which also happen to be intellectually engaging.  Their unusual pictorial elements combined with synthesized ideas from varying sources makes me wonder what the experience of the viewer unfamiliar with the iconography would be though.

1  Lionel Gossman, "BEYOND MODERN:  The Art of the Nazarens,"  Common Knowledge 14.1, (2008) p. 60-61
2  Ibid., p. 64
3  Ibid., p. 68
4  Helmut Nickel, "The Bride and the Cat:  A Possible Source for Overbeck's Freundschaftsbild of Franz Pforr" Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 27, (1992), pp. 183-187
5  Lionel Gossman, "BEYOND MODERN:  The Art of the Nazarens,"  Common Knowledge 14.1, (2008) p. 90
6  Ibid.,p. 185
7. Helmut Nickel, "The Bride and the Cat:  A Possible Source for Overbeck's Freundschaftsbild of Franz Pforr"Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 27,  (1992), pp. 185


  1. Wonderful post Sedef! Thank you also for mentioning the Titian overview - I tried to make it a handy guide to approaching iconographically dense works, which the Nazarenes seemed obsessed with emulating as in your examples here. I love the cats too!

    Keep up the wonderful work.

    Kind regards

  2. Thanks.
    @ the cat...I found the comparison interesting and refreshing when I found it. When we covered this painting in class we interpreted the cats as a sensual element like Manet's Olympia. How 19th century of us don't you think?


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