At the beginning of the 19th century, painting was still under the influence of the baroque tradition and, in spite of its thematic deviations, continued to be marked by the sacred. Such stylistic tendencies were strongly motivated by the Catholic Church favouring conservativism and the traditional baroque mannerism in order to demonstrate its triumph over protestantism – which was, in fact, contrary to its actual power, first weakened by the French revolution and then by Napoleon’s political orientation. In this part of Europe the Church suffered mainly from the reforms introduced by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. In the second half of the 19th century the balance between secular and sacred painting changed in favour of the former; while church commissions presented an important source of income for painters, they regarded profane painting as a means of exploring new artistic possibilities.
As early as the second quarter of the 19th century, the progressive literary liberal circle, led by the poet France Prešeren and the scholar Matija Čop, drew a platform for the national revival. Slovene painting, influenced by the emergence of the Slovene liberals (mladoslovenci) and their clearly defined political programme, began to orientate itself towards depicting reality (especially the rural genre). The artists repudiated the classicist heritage in exchange for contemporary life. Devoid of any domestic tradition, Slovene artists formulated the specific painterly problems of realism in various European artistic centres, first in Venice, Rome, and Vienna, while the second generation of realistic painters were educated at the Munich academy and then finally resorted to open-air painting.
Some of the most prominent painters of the time came from domestic craftsman workshops, which continued in the 19th century to specialise in painting and carving. They inherited simplified baroque ideals.
The Slovene painters in the period of realism can, according to their lives and stylistic tendencies, be divided into two generations. The very first generation, with the Šubic brothers as its leading representatives and the so-called »Wolf will«, managed to turn the painting, both in terms of style as well as theme, from sacral commissions and baroque compositional patterns to the more pertinent artistic problems. They were no longer dependent on the taste of an individual who commissioned a certain work, instead they chose to draw on contemporary European painting. Commitment to art and a »higher mission« became the motto of the painters who declared themselves to be the disciples of Janez Wolf.
Janez Wolf (born, Leskovec near Krško 1825–died, Ljubljana 1884) was the central artistic figure in the third quarter of the 19th century, »pupil of the domestic craftsman workshop and Italian renaissance art«. Although he belongs among the artists of Romanticism, he is presented in this chapter because he was the teacher of a number of Slovene realistic painters. Having broken with the tradition of baroque art, Wolf introduced in church painting the ideals of Nazarene art. However, he could not apply the high principles he had adopted in Italy to his work in Ljubljana. The only exception was those talented disciples with whom he was able to share his enthusiasm and commitment. He would pass on to them his noble idealistic values, the ethics of the artist’s status, and the idea of autonomous art. Owing to Wolf, Slovene painters ceased to perceive the role of artist as that of craftsman – henceforth the artist became someone who strove for a higher creation. The seeds of Wolf’s pedagogic ideas are likely to have inspired the painter Anton Ažbe, who several times proclaimed himself as heir to Wolf’s ideas, with the importance of selfless and total commitment to pedagogic vocation.
Wolf modelled his painting on classicist Italian art and German Nazarene painters such as Joseph Fürich and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld; their works were promoted by graphic reproductions and religious literature. This orientation is well illustrated by the small tryptich St. Joseph with Jesus, St. Joachim, and St. Anne (Sv. Jožef z Jezusom, Sv. Joahim in Sv. Ana).
Wolf was responsible for a large opus of wall paintings. His most original frescoes are those in Vrhnika, Trbovlje, Vrabče, and Vipava. The painting Baptism in the Jordan (Krst v Jordanu) served as a model for the fresco on the northern fasade of Ljubljana cathedral, executed in 1872; it imitates the outlines of the older and poorly-preserved fresco by Giulio Quaglio.
Wolf’s influence upon his contemporaries as well as on his successors was manifold. Introducing Nazarene ideals, he made a profound break with the baroque tradition, he created both a new type of church altar-piece and a new type of wall painting for the sacred space. He laid the foundations for the late Nazarene idealistic tendencies of the second half of the 19th century, adopted by his disciples, who carried it on well into the 20th century and thus effected a change of taste in those who commissioned works of art. Simultaneously, Wolf also generated the development of Slovene painting in the direction of realism, which is reflected in his plastic, monumental depiction of the human figure, subsequently pursued and expanded by the painter Janez Šubic. However, realism in the true sense of the word is associated with two other disciples of Wolf’s, Jurij Šubic and Anton Ažbe.
Janez Šubic (born, Poljane nad Škofjo Loko 1850–died, Kaiserslautern 1889) started as an apprentice painter in the craftsman workshop of his father, Štefan Šubic, and with Janez Wolf. The latter pressed him to enrol at the Academy in Venice and later in Rome and Vienna. In addition to the above-mentioned principles, broad experience, and extensive knowledge, Wolf also provided the young artist with a number of important connections with Slovene intellectuals and patrons such as the Trpinc family, as well as with foreigners such as his friend Anselm Feuerbach, who was to leave an indelible mark on Šubic’s work. While in Vienna, he was employed in the workshop of the fashionable painter Hans Makart.
The stylistic dichotomy of his work manifests itself in the duality of the late romanticism of his intimate painterly studies and the academic realism of his church paintings. His Roman urban and rural landscapes, produced in the 1870s, such as Rome – Aventine Hill (Rim – Aventinski grič) or Rome – Colosseum (Rim – Kolosej), are relaxed sketches, made in harmonious, simple and reduced coloration. He applied his acquired skill and traditional studio practice to the concrete experience of open-air painting.
The paintings Father (Oče, 107) and Sister Mica (Sestra Mica), both dated 1880, are true examples of realistic painting, modelled in uniform brownish coloration, with carefully depicted facial expressions and convincing psychological characterization. Šubic’s portraits of his own family gave praise to the rural man, thus placing him in aworld which, several decades before, had been the province of the middle class.
His younger brother Jurij Šubic (born, Poljane nad Škofjo Loko 1855–died, Leipzig 1890) was the pioneer of open-air painting in Slovene art. He began his education in a similar manner to his brother. After the Academy of Vienna he was the first Slovene painter to go to Paris, where he began to paint with brighter colours and in sunlight. He spent the year 1882 in Normandy, where, influenced by his French fellow painters, he executed open-air landscape fragments and genre paintings such as Gardener (Vrtnar), The Painter Desrivičres with His Mother in His Studio (Slikar Desrivičres z materjo v ateljeju), and Before the Hunt (Pred lovom), dated 1883, which was the first Slovene painting to have been accepted for the Salon Exhibition in Paris.
Jurij Šubič’s domestic oeuvre is notable for several true-to-life, realistic portraits of his contemporaries, among which his representative depiction of Dr. Ivan Tavčar deserves special attention. Tavčar was a contributor to Ljubljanski Zvon, the editor of Slovan, the mayor of Ljubljana and the leader of the progressive-national party. Jurij also became associated with the liberal literary-publicist circle in Ljubljana, which advocated progressive Slavonic ideas.
In his portraits, Jurij Šubic revealed a person’s character and his state of mind. He created the melancholic atmosphere in the painting Alone (Sama) by means of eloquent brushwork and an almost expressive application of colour spots.
The Šubič brothers had striking artistic personalities, which were independent of each other. They left behind a large opus of drawings as well as many original ideas which they were not able to fully develop due to their premature deaths.
Jožef Petkovšek (born, Verd near Vrhnika 1861–died, Ljubljana 1898) was first educated in Venice and Munich. Afterwards he went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Jurij Šubic. There he copied the popular French genre realists of the time. Petkovšek’s chief aim was to create a Slovene rural genre. His compositions Venetian Kitchen (Beneška kuhinja) and At Home (Doma) draw on expressive realism and ethnographic details in order to reveal an intimate mood and bleak reality, in particular the emotions of the individuals portrayed. The painting At Home has been the subject of several profound interpretations along the lines of the spiritual states of alienation. In these paintings Petkovšek used a metallic cold and dark coloration, sharp flashes of light and unusual compositional elements.
One of Petkovšek’s most accomplished works is his painting House by the Water
(Hiša ob vodi), in which he managed to depict – in contrast to the romantic vehement and elaborate segmentation of nature – a simple world of light and colour reflections. He executed a pure visual motif of light and dissolution of colour surfaces, whereby he touched upon the problem dealt with by his immediate successors – the impressionists.
The works of Ivana Kobilca (born, Ljubljana 1861–died, Ljubljana 1926), who was the first Slovene female painter to have a formal academic education, radiate an entirely different artistic temperament. She was a painter of portraits, genre, interior, floral still-life and open-air motifs. Owing to her penetrating mind, high artistic ideals, and her friends, she became acquainted with important artists and other figures from cultural life. She was educated in Munich and passed from middle-class realism and the studio dark phase – her popular painting from this period is Woman Drinking Coffee (Kofetarica) – to the use of brighter colours and open-air painting. She continued this practice in Paris.
Like Petkovšek and Ažbe, Kobilca also made use of photographs while painting. She did so when she was preparing, for instance, a composition for Summer (Poletje), the work which was introduced at the Salon Exhibition in Paris in 1891, and immediately earned glowing praise in Vienna, Munich, Berlin and elsewhere. In the 1890s she executed several spontaneous, modern works and assumed a simple manner of painting. With her Parisian Woman Selling Vegetables (Pariška branjevka) she managed to avoid sentimentality and instead, due to the motif she chose, touched upon realism. Kobilca never intentionally joined the realist painters. Even in her later stage, she would prefer to resort to static compositions, while in the autumn of her career she chose to adapt to the flexible form of traditional academic realism.
Simultaneously with Ivana Kobilca in the 1880s, Ferdo Vesel (born and died, Ljubljana 1861–1946), while still in Munich, also abandoned dark painting and consequently reoriented himself towards painting light and air. Although he was continually experimenting with new techniques, Vesel remained faithful to the realist and open-air programme. He was educated in Vienna, Munich as well as on his many other travels. For a certain period of time he collaborated with Ivana Kobilca. They both dedicated themselves to interior open-air motifs such as the painting Women Ironing (Likarice), which were popular with the Munich painters. They depicted female figures at work in an interior illumined through the windows by natural light. In the bright open-air palette he thus executed the paintings Boy in Greenery (Deček v zelenju) and Two Friends (Prijateljici). Vesel’s interest in the rural genre is present throughout his opus, however, his painting Before the Wedding (Pred svatbo), dated 1897, comes closest, in terms of colour treatment, to symbolism.
Anton Ažbe (born, Dolenčice nad Poljanami 1862–died, Munich 1905) essentially made his reputation as a pedagogue. On the initiative of Rihard Jakopič and Ferdo Vesel, he established a private school for painters in Munich, which he supervised until his death. He strove to inspire the Slovene painters who enrolled in his school with Wolf’s idealistic views on the artist’s mission, and he pursued the established continuity in Slovene painting. He also developed an artistic method for plastic modelling according to the »ball principle« (Kugelprinzip), along with implementing clean colours on the canvas. This is how he motivated his pupils to carefully observe optical impressions and change of colour potential under the influence of light. As a model for understanding his artistic principles, Ažbe hung his painting Black Woman (Zamorka) on the wall of his school studio. He was particularly proud of this work because he regarded it as the supreme accomplishment of his artistic endeavours. He encouraged his pupils to aim at a relaxed manner of creating which emphasizes expression. The painting In a Harem (V haremu) reveals his own pursuit of »painterly verisimilitude« by developing form at the expense of the dissolution of colour, with which he achieved the final stage of his teaching. By that time Ažbe’s views were regarded by his young pupils, such as Vassily Kandinsky and Aleksey Jawlensky, as already outdated.
The important guidelines of the realist painters were solving isolated painterly problems, faithfulness to the theme of the life of ordinary people from the lower social class, and the idea of establishing a national identity in the field of art. From the perspective of history, they took a progressive role which was evolved by their fellow painters – impressionists.