Monday, February 27, 2006

Hesse A Princely German Collection

Portland Art Museum: Last Week when I was up in Portland, Oregon attending the Instructional Technologies Strategies Conference I had the exquisite pleasure of also attending the Hesse: A Princely German Collection exhibition at the Portland Art Museum.

Like many Americans who receive little instruction in European history below the college level, I was vaguely aware of the German ancestry of Hessian soldiers in the American Revolution but had no idea that central Germany was not the typical monarchy that ruled most of the European states from the 16th century onward.

The exhibit catalogue explains: "By the end of the 17th century, most of the modern European nation-states had been forged by monarchs who ran them with professional centralized administrations. This was not so for a considerable area in central Europe that was not defined by natural boundaries. The German language was the only common denominator among its principalities. In the centuries following Charlemagne's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, C.E., this area of central Europe became known as "The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." Although the designation lasted until 1806, it meant little in terms of political power. From the 16th century onward, the Emperor was usually a member of the Habsburg dynasty. Still, he had to be elected and was obliged to consult with the hereditary and ecclesiastical German princes and representatives of the great cities who voted him into office."

Among these principalities, Hesse-Kassel was ruled by the powerful family of Hesse, descended from the 13th century Dukes of Brabant. The Hesse rulers were instrumental in the adoption of the Lutheran faith and promoted the "Jugendstil" fusion of arts and industry.

"As active participants in the German Renaissance, Landgraf Wilhelm the Wise (1532-1592) and his son Moritz the Learned (1572-1632) regarded the assembling of a collection of works of art, be they paintings, scientific instruments, or antiquities, as part of the enhancement of the state and a personal duty of leadership."

We should all be thankful that they did.

The official exhibition description:

"The term "“Hessian" evokes the 18th century German soldiers whose training and prowess were so esteemed that they were engaged by the British to fight in the American War of Independence. Few outside of Germany, however, know of the noble family that has led the state of Hesse since the 16th century and continues to this day. Art historians are familiar with the great Madonna by Holbein which belongs to the family and is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt. Apart from this unsurpassed masterpiece of German Renaissance art, the vast Hesse art collections are virtually unknown.

The Portland Art Museum is the exclusive venue for the first public presentation of the artistic wealth of the house of Hesse which will take place October 2005 through March 2006. In addition to the great Holbein Madonna, this ground-breaking exhibition will include outstanding examples of German baroque silver and furniture, a royal coach, a gilded throne, German Romantic paintings, Winterhalter portraits, a Russian dowry, Jugendstil from the Hesse-sponsored Darmstadt artists colony, classical antiquities, and jeweled orders and tiaras.

One of the leading princely houses of Europe, the Hesse dynasty has welcomed into its ranks daughters of George II and of Queen Victoria; Tsar Nicolas I; Kaiser Friedrich III; and King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. The family tree includes the last czarina, Alexandra Feodorovna, who was born Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt. The family archive contains a wealth of unpublished material, letters, photographs and documents from which a chapter of European social history has yet to be written."

I was overwhelmed by the "Cinderella" beauty of the coach of Landgraf Ludwig VIII of Hesse Darmstadt, ca. 1750. This gilded beech wood, bronze, leather, oak and iron conveyance was the most ornate coach I have seen to date. I was amazed that at such an early date, a coach would be totally enclosed with beveled glass and the ornately carved leather suspension straps tighted with bronze cranks were state-of-the-art for the time period as well.

This "berlin" style coach was fashioned after a coach originally designed by Piedmontese architect and engineer Phillippe de Chieze for Grand Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg. Smaller than the other touring coaches of the day, it was used for ceremony more than travel. It was usually taken by boat to a landing nearest the site of a scheduled ceremony. There, sturdy wheels were installed for the short journey inland then replaced by ceremonial wheels like those pictured here for the actual procession.

I was also very impressed with the detail of tiny figures that populated paintings by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder, the court painter of Hesse-Kassel Landgraf Wilhelm VIII. His paintings have the scope of a large landscape but he populates the foreground with people enganged in various activities. As tiny as they are, the people have delicately detailed facial features and their costumes reflect the range of fabric used at the time, including some of the diaphanous tulle used in women's fashion. The military figures are resplendent with minute buttons and carefully detailed military decorations and ribbons.

Some of the most ornate metalwork I have ever seen was displayed in towering silver table fountains used to mix water with wine for guests.

"The classical Greek practice of diluting wine with water remained customary in southern Europe. Table fountains which performed the procedure quasi-mechanically, made their first appearance in 16th-century Florence at the court of the Medici. In northern Europe, however, wine was consumed full strength. Moritz the Learned's creation of an Order of Temperance in 1601 is an indication of the concern of German princes that drunkeness had become a social problem. The novel table fountains fashioned as glamourous silver sculpture offered an eyecatching means of advocating moderation." - Exhibition Catalogue

The goldsmith's craft was also demonstrated in the expansive Gilded Bronze Surtout de Table designed by Karl Friedrich Schninkel between 1815 and 1830.

"The surtout de table traditionally served as a centerpiece for a formal table setting. In the 18th century such centerpeices were usually composed of footed dishes for fruit and candies or assemblages of porcelain figures. Around 1800 these were replaced by gilded bronze centerpieces featuring a long deck with various sculptural embellishments. The fashion reached its pinnacle in the French Empire centerpieces by the bronze-worker Pierre Phillippe Thomire (1751-1843)." - Exhibit Catalogue

I couldn't help but marvel at the classically-inspired figures and wonder if the prince ever thought mere mortals would be able to gaze at his dining room splendor.

As someone who has an ongoing love affair with historical portraiture, I was dazzled by the huge portraits of Princess Anna of Prussia and Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna of Russia by German artist Franz Xavier Winterhalter. I collect modest Victorian-framed prints of famous historical personalities produced by Cameo Creations in the early 1900s and have one by Winterhalter but it is nothing like the spectacular 5-foot portraits displayed in this exhibition. I kept returning to them again and again trying to assimilate them like a fine glass of wine. Although not noticeable in this photograph, Winterhalter's conveyance of light and inner beauty was very inspirational. Of course the ornate Rococo frames were art in themselves as well.

"Born in a small village in Germany's Black Forest, Franz Xaver Winterhalter left his home to study painting at the academy of Monaco. Before becoming court painter to Louis-Philippe, the king of France, he joined a circle of French artists in Rome. In 1835, after he painted the German Grand Duke and Duchess of Badew, Winterhalter's international career as a court portrait painter was launched. Although he never received high praise for his work in his native Germany, the royal families of England, France, and Belgium all commissioned him to paint portraits. His monumental canvases established a substantial popular reputation, and lithographic copies of the portraits helped to spread his fame.

Winterhalter's portraits were prized for their subtle intimacy, but his popularity among patrons came from his ability to create the image his sitters wished or needed to project to their subjects. He was able to capture the moral and political climate of each court, adapting his style to each client until it seemed as if his paintings acted as press releases, issued by a master of public relations." - The Getty Center