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Art in Slovenia

Biedermeier and Romanticism

Detailed research into the Central European painting of the first half of the 19th century has cast serious doubt on the traditional terminology. While Biedermeier has primarily been regarded in terms of its sociological signification, Romanticism has been considered its component part and accompaniment indicating emphasized emotionalism, spiritual superiority and dramatic picturesqueness. These characteristics have become especially prominent in painting landscape segments which, for instance in the background of portraits, more often than not symbolize the emotional states of the figure portrayed. 

Both terms are used to define the painting which was commissioned by the bourgeoisie in specific historical circumstances, when the middle classes were beginning to gain economic power and emerging bourgeois intellectuals were gradually beginning to feel national affiliation. Many a work of art was thus commissioned by the bourgeoisie, which had been considerably strengthened by the French revolution. By analogy to aristocracy, a member of the bourgeoisie sought to decorate his home by establishing a gallery of family portraits – something which is emblematic of every prosperous class, and which is still evident today. Moreover, portraiture of the bourgeoisie was, for the painter, the most regular form of income.

Sociologically, Biedermeier incorporated the lower and middle bourgeoisie and became the voice of their life ideals, orientations and norms: nostalgic life in a patriarchal family circle and among friends, with attributes of security, independence and adherence – many of which, from today’s perspective, might be seen as signs of obtuseness and narrow-mindedness. 

Neither the beginning nor the end of the period can be strictly demarcated. The traditional time framework of Biedermeier between the Vienna Congress (1815) and the March Revolution (1848) has been expanded in our collection by the works of the painters who lived well into the third quarter of the 19th century, as these artistic orientations did not decline until the death of the painters Marko Pernhart and Anton Karinger. 

The stylistic elements of the painting of this period are primarily based on the formal characteristics of neoclassicism such as the sharp drawing, thin layers of polished colour, and the narrow spectrum of colour. The predominant motifs were portrait and landscape – the latter flourished in mid-century – complemented by veduta, still life and, less frequently, genre.

A unique feature of the period was the increase in amateur painters, dilettanti, who practised painting in their spare time and were without any formal academic education. They modelled their works on those of the traditionally established artists. Their production, although quite substantial, was of marginal significance and varied quality, and for this reason it is not presented in the collection.

The radical bourgeois ideas were represented by the painters Matevž Langus, Mihael Stroj, Jožef Tominc, Pavel Künl, Marko Pernhart, Anton Karinger, and a number of less important artists, especially landscape and veduta painters, who flooded the market with their drawings and graphic works. Among them were also foreign artists who came to settle in this territory, though many of them were only itinerant painters. Matevž Langus (born, Kamna gorica near Kropa 1792 – died, Ljubljana 1855) made portraits of Carniolan, especially Ljubljana, bourgeoisie. Besides portraits, he also produced church paintings and frescoes in a belated baroque manner and traditional syntax. He was capable of acquiring commissions only from those who, because of their lower artistic standard, approved of his style and naive realism. In addition to portraits, he concerned himself with painting background and attributes indicating the status, interest or occupation of the person portrayed; the portrait of his own wife is thus furnished with a small sewing table, the portrait of Anton Rudež is set against his castle in Ribnica, and that of the Ljubljana merchant A. H. Hohn, against a view of the city.

The life and fate of Jožef Tominc (born, Gorizia 1790–died, Gradišče near Prvačina 1866) symbolized the position of an intellectual and artist at the crossroads of two cultures, two nations. He worked in Gorizia, Trieste, and in Ljubljana. As a cosmopolitan and a prominent painter, he belongs to the general culture of Central Europe. He was educated at the academies in Venice, Rome, and Naples. He enriched the elements of classicist drawing with warm and vivid colouring. He was a superb master of the painting techniques, which is evident from the variety of the materials he painted: cloth, lace, porcelain, and polished wood, as well as from his works Family of Dr. Frušić (Družina dr. Frušića), Cecilia, Countess Auersperg (Cecilija grofica Auersperg), and Woman with Veil (Ženska s tančico). What distinguishes Tominc from Langus and Stroj is his critical distance from the models and his ability to depict facial topography with a sense of humour and without a shred of impudence. 

His portrait of his own father Janez for his eightieth birthday, for instance, betrays uncompromising naturalism and is entirely devoid of any idealization. When modelling the face, Tominc would use brighter colours with delicate pink tonalities.

Tominc’s portraits clearly reveal a distinction between social classes. The representations of the middle-class people emphasize their firm moral attitude, virtue, temperance and insight. His portraits of aristocrats likewise contain sociologically indicative details such as family wealth ranging from female jewelry and his special emphasis on clothing, to porcelain in the group portrait of the female members of The Family Moscon (Družina Moscon) of 1829. 

Mihael Stroj (born, Ljubno na Gorenjskem 1803–died, Ljubljana 1871) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. From the year 1830 onwards he lived in Zagreb, where he was introduced into the Illyrian circle of intellectuals by Stanko Vraz. Under the influence of Viennese and Zagreb artistic experience he moved to Ljubljana in 1842, where he made his reputation as a fashionable portraitist of the Ljubljana middle-class. Following the example of his contemporary, Viennese portraitist Friedrich von Amerling, he developed a characteristically sophisticated and pleasing form of portraiture. He made this manner of painting a prerequisite for success. 

The marked personal style of Stroj – in contrast to Langus’s languidness – was able to meet the higher standards of those who commissioned portraits. He introduced a special type of female portrait with a narrow face, melancholic expression, emphasized elegant hands and shoulders as manifested in his portrait of Luiza Pesjak (Luiza Pesjakova) of 1855, an admirer of the poet France Prešeren and the authoress of the libretto of the first Slovene opera, Gorenjski slavček. Prešeren was employed in the lawyer’s office of Luiza’s father Blaž Crobath, whose portrait was also made by Stroj. 

In spite of Stroj’s complete financial dependence on painting, it would be hard to speak of the artist’s commitment to his vocation. As far as Slovene artists are concerned, the idea of commitment to art was not developed until the time of the painter Wolf and his successors.

Among the names of the Slovene painters of that time, Pavel Künl (born, Mladá Boleslav 1817–died, Ljubljana 1871) is one of those which are often neglected. He left behind a large opus of Nazarene church paintings, portraits, portrait miniatures, landscapes, fantastic scenes, and naive genres. After his education at the Viennese academy he returned to Ljubljana to create his best works such as the painting Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (Kristus in Samarijanka ob vodnjaku) for the evangelical church, as well as some portraits. He later adapted himself to the undemanding tastes of those who commissioned his works. He was among the first to have painted a view of the city as an independent picture; two of them are presented in the collection: Ljubljana – Ribji trg (Ljubljana – Ribji trg), and Ljubljana – The Šentpeter Suburbs (Ljubljana – šentpetrsko predmestje). Today, both paintings are also of documentary value. The romantic tendencies in Künl’s work may be perceived in his Nazarene church compositions and bucolic supplementaries in his landscape paintings, modelled upon the painter Wilhelm von Kobell.

Marko Pernhart (born, Srednje Medgorje near Velikovec 1824–died, Klagenfurt 1871) was inspired to paint by the industrialist and amateur painter Edvard Moro. He was educated in Vienna and Munich. He was strongly influenced by the paintings of the 17th century Dutch landscape painters with their carefully depicted details, clouded background, and romantic mood. Such is the depiction of the Carinthian centre of pilgrimage called Maria Wörth (Gorica na Vrbskem jezeru). His work Laghi di Fusine in Stormy Weather (Klanško jezero v nevihti) betrays a similar subtlety and admiration of nature. The artist’s sentimental attitude can also be perceived in his depiction of the view of The River Sava with Šmarna gora (Sava s Šmarno goro) – a motif which was introduced by Pernhart and later on taken up by many a Slovene painter. 

The romantically realistic representation of the mountainous landscape is a characteristic feature of Pernhart’s painting. Due to its topographic exactness, it is possible to speak in many cases of the portrayal of scenery. A special place in his opus is reserved for his panoramic paintings on which he depicted almost the entire Slovene land. While scaling mountain peaks, Pernhart had an opportunity to see the remotest valleys of the Eastern Alps, settled by our ancestors. With cartographic precision he managed to paint almost thirty views, for which he was highly praised also by his contemporaries. Panoramic paintings were commissioned by the newly-established institutions, attempting to chart the programme for their activities through the panoramic depiction of their regions (such as, for example, Deželni muzej – today National Museum of Slovenia). Panoramic painting was a popular and widespread phenomenon in the mid-19th century, and this stemmed from its dependence upon the development of the technique, especially that of optics and photography. In pursuit of motifs, the painter would, sketchbook in hand, climb mountains like Triglav, Mangart, Dobrač, Grossglockner, Šmarna gora. The four-part painting Panoramic View from Stol (Panorama s Stola), for instance, was also created for programmatic documentary purpose. 

Anton Karinger (born and died, Ljubljana, 1829–1870) came from a middle-class family and did not take up painting until after his military education. He evolved into a brilliant and progressive portraitist and painter of landscapes; in the latter, this is manifested in the span from the popular but painterly conservative depiction of the View of Triglav from Bohinj (Triglav iz Bohinja) 1861, with its idyllic pastoral group, baroque dynamic composition, contrastive application of light and thick pasty colours resembling the late baroque imaginary landscapes of Lovro Janša, to his later works which more often than not verge on realism. Among Karinger’s ideal painters, Franz Steinfeld, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, deserves special attention.

Unlike Pernhart, who would never sacrifice the polished form for the greater freedom of the colour interpretation of landscape, Karinger’s later works are already based on observation of the changes of light and more daring application of colours. He softened the strokes and contemplated the artistic value of motif; however, the arrangement of scenes is, with few exceptions, still dependent on the old compositional formulations. This is evident from his late works such as the paintings The Karavanke from Carinthia (Karavanke s Koroškega) of 1865 and Woods (Gozd) of 1869. With Karinger and his use of photography as a painterly tool, the romantically emphasized orientation to the motif of primeval Nature and its infinite dimensions juxtaposed with the insignificance of man became a keen observation of Nature and its seasonal changes. Small-scale paintings are characteristic of Karinger’s work in that they reflect the artist’s personal growth from the romantic ideal to realism and more original solutions to the problems of painting.

Barbara Jaki, PhD