1902 Encyclopedia > Peter von Cornelius

Peter von Cornelius
German painter
(1784-1867)




PETER VON CORNELIUS, the leader of the German art revival, was born in Dusseldorf in 1784, and died in Berlin, March 6, 1867.
Cornelius, like other great painters, is reported to have manifested his artistic talent at a very early age. His father, who was inspector of the Dusseldorf Gallery, dying whilst the painter was yet a boy, the young Cornelius wras stimulated to extraordinary exertions. The reasons for this he has himself pathetically expressed in a letter to the Count Raczynski. " I was in my sixteenth year," he writes, " when I lost my father, and it fell to the lot of an elder brother and myself to watch over the interests of a numerous family. It was at this time that it was attempted to persuade my mother that it would be better for me to devote myself to the trade of a goldsmith than to continue to pursue painting—in the first place, in consequence of the time necessary to qualify me for the art, and in the next, because there were already so many painters. My dear mother, however, rejected all this advice, and I felt myself impelled onward by an uncontrollable enthusiasm, to which the confidence of my mother gave new strength, which was supported by the continual fear that I should be removed from the study of that art I loved so much."
His earliest work of importance was the decoration of the choir of St Quirinus Church at Neuss. At the age of twenty-six he produced his designs from Faust. On October 14, 1811, he arrived in Rome, were he soon became one of the most promising of that brotherhood of young German painters which included Overbeck, Schadow, Veit, Schnorr, Pforr, Vogel, and Wàchter,—a member of a fraternity (some of whom selected a ruinous convent for their home) who were banded together for resolute study and mutual criticism. Out of this association came the men who, though they were ridiculed at the time, were destined to found a new German school of art.
At Borne Cornelius participated, with other members of his fraternity, in the decoration of the Casa Bartoldi and the Villa Massimi, and while thus employed he was also engaged upon designs for the Nibelungenlied. From Rome he was called to Dusseldorf to remodel the Academy, and to Munich by the then crown-prince of Bavaria, after-wards Louis I., to take the direction of those decorations which his royal highness had projected for the Glyptothek. Cornelius, however, soon found that attention to such widely separated duties was incompatible with the just performance of either, and most inconvenient to himself; eventually, therefore, he resigned his post at Diisseldorf to throw himself completely and thoroughly into those works for which he had been commissioned by the crown-prince. He there-fore left Diisseldorf for Munich, where he was joined by those of his pupils who elected to follow and to assist him. At the death of Director Langer, 1824-25, he became director of the Munich Academy.
The fresco decorations of the Ludwigskirche, which were for the most part designed and executed by Cornelius, are perhaps the most important mural works of modern '.imes. The large fresco of the Last Judgment, over the high altar in that church, measures G2 feet in height by 38 feet in width. The frescoes of the Creator, the Nativity, and the Crucifixion in the same building are also upon a large scale.
Amongst his other great works in Munich may be in-cluded his decorations in the Pinakothek and in the Glyptothek ; those in the latter building, in the hall of the gods and the hall of the hero-myths, are perhaps the best known. About the year 1839-40 he left Munich for Berlin to proceed with that series of cartoons, from the Apocalypse, for the frescoes for which he had been commissioned by Frederick William IV., and which were intended to decorate the Campo Santo, or Boyal Mausoleum, forming one of the wings of the new cathedral. These were his final works.
It is difficult to convey to the English reader any adequate notion of the important position which this great designer and master spirit held in contemporary art ; for Cornelius, as an oil painter, possessed but little technical skill, nor do his works exhibit any instinctive appreciation of colour. Even as a fresco painter his manipulative power was not great. And in critically examining the execution in colour of some of his magnificent designs, one cannot help feeling that he was, in this respect, unable to do them full justice. This criticism will even hold after making due allowance, in works of a high intellectual aim, for the claims of form over those of colour. Cornelius and his associates formed their styles on the study of the great Italian masters, or rather, we should say, endeavoured to follow in their own works the spirit of the Italian painters. But as in family descent so in the works of genius we may sometimes detect the indications of several distinct formative influences. Thus in Cornelius the Italian strain is to a considerable extent modified by the Diirer heritage. This is true not only of Cornelius but of all the original members of the Munich school of thirty years since. This Diirer influence is manifest in a tendency to overcrowding in composition, in a degree of attenuation in the proportions of and a poverty of contour in the nude figure, and also in a leaning to the selection of Gothic forms for draperies. These peculiarities are even noticeable in Cornelius's principal work of the Last Judg-ment, in the Ludwigskirche in Munich. The attenuation and want of flexibility of contour in the nude are perhaps most conspicuous in his frescoes of classical subjects in the Glyptothek, especially in that representing the conten-tion for the body of Patroclus. But notwithstanding these peculiarities there is always in his works a grandeur and nobleness of conception, as all must acknowledge who have inspected his designs for the Ludwigskirche, for the Campo Santo, &c.
The difficulty which many have of understanding how a painter of such comparatively slight technical skill could materially influence the art of his age lies in their want of ability to estimate the value of a dominant or leading mind. They are alive only to those practical matters which come within the compass of their own understandings. Yet that mental calibre, that grasp of thought, that knowledge of principles, and that power of directing other men which Cornelius possessed, are the very qualities which are of the greatest value, since for one man who possesses them, there are thousands who have the capacity either for acquiring technical skill, for observing facts, or for administrative routine. Cornelius was a man of that far rarer order of regal minds who transform wastes into kingdoms. If he were not dexterous in the handling of the brush, he could conceive and design a subject with masterly purpose. If he had an imperfect eye for colour, in the Venetian, the Flemish, or the English sense, he had vast mental foresight, and could direct the German school of painting into those paths which promise to make it, at no distant date, the first on the continent of Europe. He had great political prevision, too ; his favourite motto of " Deutschland fiber Alles" indicates the direction and the strength of his patriotism.
Carl Hermann was one of Cornelius's earliest and most esteemed scholars, a man of simple and fervent nature, painstaking to the utmost, a very type of the finest German student nature; Kaulbach and Eberle were also amongst his valued scholars. The reader may here be reminded that the vast importance of the practice of mural painting to the fine arts of a country consists in the necessity which it involves of obtaining the assistance of scholars in the carry-ing out, within reasonable time, of extensive mural works. Hence the institution of scholarship in Germany as in the great Italian art epoch. Every public edifice in Munich and other German cities which was embellished with frescoes, became, as in Italy, a school of art of the very best kind; for the decoration of a public building begets a practical knowledge of design. The development of this institution of scholarship in Munich was a work of time. The cartoons for the Glyptothek were all by Cornelius's own hand. In the Pinakothek his sketches and small drawings sufficed ; but in the Ludwigskirche the invention even of some of the subjects was intrusted to his scholar Hermann.
To comprehend and appreciate thoroughly the magnitude of the work which Cornelius accomplished for Germany, we must remember that at the beginning of this century Germany had no national school of art. Germany was in painting and sculpture behind all the rest of Europe. Yet in less than half a century Cornelius founded a great school, revived mural painting, and turned the gaze of the art world towards Munich. The German revival of mural painting had its effect upon England, as wrell as upon other European nations, and led to those famous cartoon com-petitions being held in Westminster Hall, and ultimately to the partial decoration of the Houses of Parliament. When the latter work was in contemplation, Cornelius, in response to invitations, visited England (November 1841). His opinion was in every way favourable to the carrying out of the project, and even in respect of the durability of fresco in the climate of England.
Cornelius, in his teaching, always inculcated a close and rigorous study of nature, but he understood by the study of nature something more than what is ordinarily implied by that expression, something more than constantly making studies from life; he meant the study of nature with an inquiring and scientific spirit. " Study nature," was the advice he once gave, " in order that you may become acquainted with its essential forms."
The personal appearance of Cornelius could not but convey to those who were fortunate enough to come into contact with him the impression that he was a man of an energetic, firm, and resolute nature. He was below the middle height and squarely built. There was evidence of power about his broad and overhanging brow, in his eagle eyes and firmly gripped attenuated lips, which no one with the least discernment could misinterpret. Yet there was a sense of humour and a geniality which drew men towards him; and towards those young artists who sought his teaching and his criticism he always exhibited a calm patience.
The reader may consult Mr Beavington Atkinson's excellent papers on German art, contributed to the Art Journal in 1865, and Dr Fdrster's life of the painter, published at Munich. (W. C. T.)



Footnotes

There were, of course, other distinguished artists besides Cornelius who contributed to the success and the glory of the German art revival —notably Overbeck, who was his fast ally in that art-loving fraternity of his early manhood, Schnorr von Carolsfcld, Heinrich Hess, 'Willielm von Kaulbach, Veit, Schadow, &c.; also those scholars who assisted in the execution of the great mural works in M unich and elsewhere, some of whom themselves became eminent, whilst others esteemed it a sufficient privilege to be permitted to help in the great and national work.







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