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Art in Slovenia

Neoclassicism

Franc Kavčič/Caucig

(Gorizia, 1755 – Vienna, 1828)

A Girl Rescuing Aristomenes from Captivity
(c. 1801), oil, canvas, 71 x 95 cm

NG S 2444, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana
Pausanias, an author from Asia Minor who lived around the year 175, told the story of how the Cretans, who were allied to Sparta, captured Aristomenes of Messenia. They took him to a farmhouse where a girl and her mother lived. The day before the arrival of the prisoner the girl had dreamt that wolves had brought a lion without claws to their farm. The girl had stuck claws on him, so that he could tear the wolves apart. When Aristomenes was brought to the house the girl remembered her dream. She got the Cretans drunk, stole the dagger of the one who was sleeping the most soundly, cut Aristomenes’ bonds and liberated him.

Caucig’s depictions after literary and historical sources are difficult to identify, because he usually chose stories which are no longer known today. We do not know whether any other European painter depicted this scene. The French painter J.-J. François Le Barbier l’Aîné depicted another story about Aristomenes, also by Pausanias (IV 17, 1).

Caucig’s painting is first mentioned in 1801, which supports a dating around that year or ante quem. There are six studies for this painting in the Graphisches Kabinett of the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna. They are in black and white chalk and depict the heads, hands, feet and postures of the individual figures (Inv. Nos. 1411, 1412, 1481, 1482, 1490 and 1499).

Their excellent state of preservation bears evidence to the quality of the technique. The artist has caught the psychology of the figures, emphasising their individual feelings, demonstrating his familiarity with the psychological and physiognomic texts of the Enlightenment.

Another example (128 x 170.2 cm), probably also by Caucig, was on sale at a Phillips auction in London on 6 Dec. 1994, No. 31, as the work of Nicolas André Monssiau.

Provenance: In 1801 the painting is mentioned by Hans Rudolph Füssli. It was still in Caucig’s residence in 1810. Then all trace of it was lost until 1988, when an anonymous owner sold it to the Dorotheum in Vienna as the work of an unknown painter. In the Dorotheum it was sold among the objects which were not auctioned and purchased by the antiquarians Oswald & Kalb GmbH of Vienna, who put it up for sale at the Christmas auction in the Dorotheum in 1989. It was purchased for the Narodna galerija on 6 Dec. 1989 with funds provided by the Kulturna skupnost Slovenije and the Gorenje Corporation of Velenje.
Exhibitions: 29 Oct. 1990–21 Jan. 1991, Ljubljana, Narodna galerija, no catalogue; 1993, Ljubljana, No. 70.
Lit.: Füssli 1801, p. 120; Annalen, 1810, p. 358; Boeckh 1825, p. 327; Heller 1830, p. 799; Kukuljević 1858, p. 152; Frimmel 1899, p. 199; Auktion 1989, Cat. No. 42, Fig. 38; Zeri and Rozman 1993, pp. 109, 186, Cat. No. 70, Fig. XI, 70.

Neoclassicism

Franc Kavčič/Caucig was an important representative of European Neo-classicist painting. Even though he depicted stories from Greco-Roman antiquity, his ethical message is fully contemporary and mirrors the time of great social changes. 

In the 1780s, Kavčič was trained in Rome where he drew also at the French Academy at the time of the second sojourn of Jacques Louis David in the Eternal City, and when Angelika Kauffmann occupied the former residence of Anton Raphael Mengs. After more than twenty years of professorship at the Vienna art academy, Kavčič was appointed director of its painting and sculpture school. He also led the painting department of the Viennese porcelain factory, and towards the end of his life he became an honorary member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. Several of his compositions thus appeared on the products of the imperial porcelain works. 

His paintings are characteristic for their compositional monumentality and clarity, impeccable modelling by means of sharp drawing, thin polished paintlayers, underlined role of female protagonists in his scenes, and academic reserve. He relied for his motifs on the rich treasury of classical history and mythology as well as biblical stories. The Old-Testament Judgement of Solomon as a narrative of the ruler’s wisdom was thus a very suitable subject matter for the prestigious commission from Emperor Francis I. As to literary sources, Kavčič was inspired by the Idylls of Salomon Gessner. The painter’s landscapes are of the Arcadian type, they are ideal and thoughtfully composed in accord with classical rules and his travel memories. They contain architectural vestiges of the glorious past and are animated by means of tiny pastoral scenes. 

The painting output by Kavčič had some influence on his numerous Viennese students in the first half of the 19th century, while in the history of art he also left trace by taking part in the intense polemics with the members of the Brotherhood of St Luke, when he defended the then already conservative ideas.