1902 Encyclopedia > Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Wilhelm von Kaulbach
German painter

WILHELM VON KAULBACH, (1805-74), an acknow-ledged leader in modern art, was born in Westphalia 15th October 1805. His parentage was humble, and his father, who was poor, combined painting with the goldsmith's trade, but means were found to place Wilhelm, a youth of seventeen, in the art academy of Diisseldorf, then re-organized, and becoming renowned under the directorship of Peter von Cornelius. Young Kaulbach at the outset had to fight a hard battle: his circumstances were neces-sitous ; he contended against hardships, even hunger. But his courage never failed ; and, uuiting genius with industry, he was ere long found foremost among the young national party which resolved that the arts of Germany should see a great revival.

Munich is the city most closely identified with Kaulbach. The large and ambitious works by which Louis I. sought to transform the capital of Bavaria into a German Athens afforded to the young painter an appropriate sphere. Cornelius had for some years been commissioned to execute the enormous frescoes in the Glyptothek, and his custom was in the winters with the aid of Kaulbach and others to com-plete the cartoons at Diisseldorf, and then in the summers, accompanied by his best scholars, to carry out the designs in colour on the museum walls in Munich. But in 1824 Cornelius became director of the Bavarian academy. Kaulbach, not yet twenty, followed, took up his permanent residence in Munich, laboured hard on the public works, executed independent commissions, and rose to such dis-tinction that in 1849, when Cornelius left for Berlin, he succeeded to the directorship of the academy, an office which he held for a quarter of a century, up to the day of his death. The training, experience, and opportunity of Kaulbach had been extraordinary; he became a prime mover in one of the most signal of art manifestations known in modern times ; he matured, after the example of the masters of the Middle Ages, the practice of mural or monumental decoration; he once more conjoined paint-ing with architecture, and displayed a creative fertility and readiness of resource scarcely found since the era of Raphael and Michelangelo.

Early in the series of his multitudinous works came the famous Narrenhaus, the appalling memories of a certain madhouse near Diisseldorf; the composition all the more deserves mention for points of contact with Hogarth. Somewhat to the same category belong the renowned illustrations to Reineke Fuchs. These, together with oc-casional figures or passages in complex pictorial dramas, show how dominant and irrepressible were the artist's sense of satire and enjoyment of fun; character in its breadth and sharpness is depicted with keenest relish, and at times the sardonic smile bursts into the loudest laugh regardless of the propriety and solemnity appropriate to high art. Thus occasionally the grotesque degenerates into the vulgar, the grand into the ridiculous, as in the satire on " the Pigtail Age " in a fresco outside the New Piuakothek. Yet the genius of Kaulbach was far too transcendent to be marred by these exceptional extravagances : such exaggera-tions came not of weakness but from excess of power; they are as the sturdy traits and lawless forces of the Teutonic and northern races whence the Westphalian painter had sprung. Kaulbach tried hard to become Grecian and Italian; but he never reached Phidias or Raphael; in short the blood of Diirer, Holbein, and Martin Schongauer ran strong in his veins. The art products in Munich during the middle of this century were of a quantity to preclude first-rate quality, and Kaulbach contracted a fatal facility in covering wall and canvas by the acre. He painted in the Hofgarten, the Odeon, the Palace, and on the external walls of the New Pinakothek. His perspicuous and showy manner also gained him abundant occupation as a book illustrator : in the pages of the poets his fancy revelled; he was glad to take inspiration from Wieland, Goethe, even Klopstock; among his engraved designs are the Shakespeare gallery, the Goethe gallery, and a folio edition of the Gospels. All these signal examples of what may be called " the Munich school," though by the many applauded to the skies, were yet subjected to censorious criticism. In a volume entitled Social Life in Munich it was with some show of reason urged that Kaulbach had been unfortunate alike in having found Cornelius for a master and King Louis for a patron, that he attempted " subjects far beyond him, believing that his admiration for them was the same as inspiration " ; the lack of real imagination he supplied by " a compound of intellect and fancy " ; he " thinks his feelings," and his creations are but "the triumph of intellect."

Nevertheless no one appreciating at their worth such master compositions as the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Battle of the Huns can deny to Kaulbach creative imagination. As a dramatic poet he tells the story, depicts character, seizes on action and situation, and thus as it were takes the spectator by storm. The manner may be occasionally noisy and ranting, but the effect after its kind is tremendous. Within the whole range of modern art no finer composition can be named than the Battle of the Huns, no bolder conception than the fierce fight in mid air between the spirits of the warriors slain in combat. The drawing, the foreshortening, the grouping and lines of com-position, are almost as a matter of course masterly. The cartoon, which, as usual in modern German art, is superior to the ultimate picture, was executed in the artist's prime at the age of thirty. At this period, as here seen, the knowledge was little short of absolute; subtle is the sense of beauty; playful, delicate, firm, the touch; the whole treatment artistic.

Ten or more years were devoted to what the Germans term a " cyclus,"—that, is, a series of pictures which, as successive chapters or essays, illustrate one theme, as Baphael in the Vatican gave pictorial exposition to universal knowledge under the distinctive titles of Theology, Philo-sophy, Jurisprudence, and Poetry. The fundamental idea whereon Kaulbach discoursed was civilization or the pro-gress of the human race as displayed in the following historic epochs :—the Tower of Babel, the Age of Homer, the Destruction of Jerusalem, the Battle of the Huns, the Crusades, and the Beformation. These major tableaux, severally 30 feet long, and each comprising over one hundred figures above life-size, are surrounded by minor compositions making more than twenty in all. The idea is to congregate around the world's historic dramas the prime agents of civilization; thus here are assembled allegoric figures of Architecture and other arts, of Science and other kingdoms of knowledge, together with lawgivers from the time of Moses, not forgetting Frederick the Great. The chosen situation for this imposing didactic and theatric display is the Treppenhaus or grand staircase in the new museum, Berlin; the surface is a granulated, absorbent wall, specially prepared; the technical method is that known as " water-glass," or " liquid flint," the infusion of silica securing permanence. The same medium was adopted in the later wall-pictures in the Houses of Parlia-ment, Westminster.

The painter's last period brings no new departure ; his ultimate works stand conspicuous by exaggerations of early characteristics. The series of designs illustrative of Goethe, which had an immense success, were melodramatic and pandered to popular taste. The vast canvas, more than 30 feet long, the Sea Fight at Salamis, painted for the Maximilianeum, Munich, evinces wonted imagination and facility in composition; the handling also retains its large-ness and vigour; but in this astounding scenic uproaf moderation and the simplicity of nature are thrown to the winds, and the whole atmosphere is hot and feverish. The painter verily had within him a fire which burnt fiercely; and, when past the age of sixty he received visitors within his spacious studio, he looked the perfect impersonation of his art. On the walls, upon easels, even on the floor, were large cartoons, rolls of canvas, piles of drawings-—fruits of a restless and inexhaustible intellect. Kaulbach in the midst moved to and fro impulsively and discoursed volubly on the creations he was about to call out of chaos. But his career was drawing to a close; seized by the cholera, he died in 1874, at the age of sixty-nine.

Kaulbach can scarcely be counted among religious painters ; yet the range of his thought is most lofty. Whatever is noblest in humanity, whatever has raised the human race, freed or enlightened the mind, given dignity and beauty to life, or reared the body into godlike frame, falls within the province of his art. Nothing small or mean finds a place ; the accidents and crudities of common nature are cast out ; typical forms are selected and matured; and all is brought into harmony with beauty. Kaulbach's was indeed a beauty-loving art. He is not supreme as a colourist; he belongs in fact to a school that holds colour in subordination ; but he laid, in common with the great masters, the sure foundation of his art in form and composition. Indeed, the science of composition has seldom if ever been so clearly understood or worked out with equal complexity and exactitude ; the constituent lines, the relation of the parts to the whole, are brought into absolute agreement; in modern Germany painting and music have trodden parallel paths, and Kaulbach is musical in the melody and harmony of his com-positions. His narrative too is lucid, and moves as a stately march or royal triumph ; the sequence of the figures is unbroken ; the arrangement of the groups accords with even literary form ; the picture falls into incident, episode, dialogue, action, plot, as a drama. The style is eclectic ; in the Age of Homer the types and the treatment are derived from Greek marbles and vases ; then in the Tower of Babel the severity of the antique gives place to the suavity of the Italian renaissance ; while in the Crusades the composition is let loose into modern romanticism, and so the manner descends into the midst of the 19th century. And yet this scholastically compounded art is so nicely adjusted and smoothly blended that it casts off all incongruity and becomes homogeneous as the issue of one mind. But a fickle public craved for change ; and so the great master in later years waned in favour, and had to witness, not without inquietude, the rise of an opposing party of naturalism and realism. Yet few men have had a brighter career, or enjoyed a reward better earned. Kaulbach's works are monu-mental, and will be bandeddownto future ages as the highest products of the renaissance of the arts in modern Germany. (J. B. A.)

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