Advent Calendar – Door 10: A garden gate

Christen Købke, The Garden Gate at the Artist’s Home at Blegdammen
Oil on paper laid down on canvas, c. 1845
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (CC0)

There’s quite a lot of material from Scandinavian museums in the Europeana Collections, and browsing through them made me realise that I don’t know nearly as much about the history of art in the Scandinavian countries as I would like to. Danish painter Christen Købke (1810-1848) is a case in point. He was a talented portraitist and landscape painter, but, perhaps most importantly, one of the first artists to shift the focus from the sublime and/or the stereotypical to realistic snippets of everyday life. The small oil sketch of his own garden gate is a good example for this aspect of his work.

The thing is, though: While I believe, I’d heard Købke’s name before, I can’t really say that I was familiar with his work even though he belongs to what is often called the “Golden Age of Danish Painting”. At the same time, I have a fairly profound knowledge of German and Austrian painting of that era, and I can see similarities there. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, apart from the select handful of “great” artists who were renowned and influential on an international level, the way we engage with art history is still very much defined by cultural and national borderlines – and that is even within Europe, without even touching on issues of eurocentrism and the whole wide world of “global art history”… But today is not the time to go down that particular road, although I likely will return to it at some point in the future. For now, let’s just enjoy one more of Købke’s painting and the admittedly limited view of the world as it appears from a certain loft in Copenhagen:

Christen Købke
View from the Loft of the Grain Store at the Bakery in the Citadel of Copenhagen
Oil on canvas, 1831, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (CC0)


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Advent Calendar – Door 9: St. Marylebone Workhouse

John Philipps Emslie, St. Marylebone Workhouse
Watercolour, The Wellcome Collection, London (CC BY)

Another architectural interior, another quiet, deserted space – a corridor, with the door to the entrance hall on the right, in St. Marylebone Workhouse, London. But as in yesterday’s post, the peaceful, almost meditative air of the image is slightly misleading: This is after all a workhouse, an almost factory-like institution where the local poor were required to labour in exchange for food and lodging. Its halls and corridors would rarely have been so still and empty…

Speaking of misleading, when I first saw this image in a thumbnail view, I must admit, I thought it was an old black and white photograph! But looking at it in a higher resolution, one soon realises that it is, in fact, a fine, almost drawing-like watercolour. It was done in 1898 by John Philipps Emslie (1839-1913), a student of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, best remembered as a topographical artist and illustrator, but also a folklorist and founding member of the Folklore Society.

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Advent Calendar – Door 8: Portal of a stairway tower

Egbert van der Poel, Portal of a stairway tower, with a man descending the stairs
Oil on panel, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Public Domain)

As a quick P. S. to yesterday’s post, here is an actual example of 17th-century Dutch painting, Portal of a Stairway Tower by Egbert van der Poel (1621-1664). The artist is perhaps best known for his depictions of the Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654, which he had witnessed himself. He also produced a fairly large amount of genre paintings, usually showing the interior of farmhouses and their inhabitants. His specialty, though, were night scenes, often dramatically lit by burning houses.

Portal of a Stairway Tower can therefore be said to be something of an exception within his oeuvre. With its focus on architecture and its predominance of whitewashed walls and structures it has more in common with, say, the church interiors of his contemporarires Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597-1665) and Emanuel de Witte (c. 1617-1692) than with the rest of his own work. It has been suggested, though, that the painting doesn’t just show an architectural interior, but is meant to represent one of the key scenes of Dutch history: Presumably, it depicts the moment before the assassination of William of Orange in the Prinsenhof, Delft, in 1584. There is a stark contrast then between the quiet, almost meditative mood of the painting and the dramatic event which is just about to unfold. Knowing that there’s an assassin lurking just behind the turn of the staircase, his presence only announced by a watchful dog, and that soon the sound of gunshots will burst through the silence and kill the man still quietly descending so stairs – knowing this certainly changes the way we perceive the painting and adds a sense of menace to a seemingly tranquil peaceful scene.

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Advent Calendar – Door 7: Gates of Gouda

Gijsbert Johannes Verspuy, Woman at a Church Door
Etching, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Public Domain)

When I came across this charming image of a woman at a church door, my initial thought was that it had to be by some Dutch master of the 17th century. The artist’s name, however, was given as Gijsbert Johannes Verspuy, and while I’d never heard of him before, Wikipedia tells me that he was only born in 1823 and passed away in 1862.

Gijsbert Johannes Verspuy, Man at a Door
Etching, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Public Domain)

As a painter and printmaker, Verspuy specialised in depictions of street scenes and architectural vedute. Most of his works are dedicated to the built environment of his hometown, Gouda. Among other things, his oeuvre includes a series of small scale etchings (c. 8×5 cm) focusing on gates and doorways, with just a single figure in them, approaching or passing the entrance.

Gijsbert Johannes Verspuy, Brick Gate in a Street
Etching, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Public Domain)

Usually, these figures wear old fashioned dress, reminiscent of the 17th century rather than the artist’s own time. No wonder then, that Verspuy’s etchings made me think of old master paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. But it’s not just details like the dress of the figures: The compositions as a whole and the air of quietness in them clearly emulate the works of artists such as Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) or Pieter de Hooch (1629-after 1684). Vermeer’s famous View of Houses in Delft or de Hooch’s Courtyard of a House in Delft spring to mind as possible sources of inspiration for Verspuy.

Gijsbert Johannes Verspuy, The Lazarus Gate in Gouda
Etching, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Public Domain)

So, admittedly, these etchings are not the most original works of art. One might call them nostalgic, revivalist, even derivative. But they do have a certain charme, and after all, Verspuy wasn’t even a professional artist: He made his living as a baker! And for someone only dabbling in painting and printmaking in his spare time, his works aren’t half-bad, are they?

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Advent Calendar – Door 6: The Rotenturm Gate in Vienna

Anton Stutzinger, The Rotenturm Gate in Vienna
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

When I entered the term “gate” in the search box of the Europeana Collections, the first two or three result pages included a large number of images depicting Vienna’s former city gates. I’m not sure whether this has something to do with the location of my IP address, or if, by pure coincidence, those were simply the most recently added items. In any case, it was a pleasant surprise, since I have always been interested in this part of the city’s history. Vienna’s city walls and defences were demolished after 1848 to make way for the fancy new Ringstraße boulevard, and seeing them in old engravings, watercolours and photographs is both fascinating and strange. When you’re familiar with Vienna in its present form, its appearance as a walled town is highly unusual, even bizarre…

What I have picked as the subject of today’s post are several views of the Rotenturm Gate. As in yesterday’s post, I have to admit, that what caught my attention wasn’t so much the gate itself, but rather something next to it. A mid-19th-century drawing by Anton Stutzinger (1821–after 1879), based on a slightly earlier print, shows the Rotenturm Gate from inside the city walls. Underneath the image, however, the artist has added an inscription that doesn’t mention the gate at all, but instead reads: “Kafeehaus [sic] des Amb. Augustini [Coffeehouse of Amb. Augustini]”:

Anton Stutzinger (after Peter Paul Westermayer),
The Rotenturm Gate in Vienna and Ambros Augustini’s coffeehouse

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

Up until the late 18th century, the city’s defences had been off-limits for civilians, but in 1785 emperor Joseph II opened them to the public. Soon, the ramparts became a popular recreation area, and coffeehouses sprang up all over them. In 1814, one Ambros Augustini was granted a licence to sell coffee next to the Rotenturm Gate during the summer months. For this purpose, he built what contemporary sources refer to as a “cabin”, probably a pavilion-like structure. However, when the gate was widened in 1819, the “coffee-cabin” had to be removed. Rather than being dismantled, the small building was put on rollers and simply wheeled away to a new location on one of the nearby ramparts, the Biberbastei. The removal of the cabin drew a large crowd, including even the emperor, Franz I, himself! After that, the popular coffee place remained in business for a few more years, but was eventually torn down after its owner’s death in 1825.

To be honest, though, I’m not quite sure which of the buildings in the picture is supposed to be Augustini’s coffeehouse – or if it’s actually included at all. The most likely candidate is the small building to the left, with the tall chimney, but even that doesn’t seem to fit the description of a free-standing cabin. What’s more, according to another part of the inscription at the bottom, Stutzinger’s drawing was copied from a view of the gate produced by the Viennese engraver Peter Paul Westermayer (1756–1825) in 1804, i.e. ten years before Augustini’s pavilion was even built. So perhaps Stutzinger merely assumed that the coffeehouse must be included in the image. The memory of Augustini and his “movable cabin” was certainly still alive in Vienna by the middle of the 19th century: Its story is recounted, for instance, in Gustav Adolph Schimmer’s book on “Old Vienna”, Das alte Wien, published in 1853. So it’s likely that Stutzinger had heard of the coffeehouse formerly located next to the gate, but he was just four years old when it was demolished, so presumably he wouldn’t have known what it had actually looked like.

In Stutzinger’s own time, there was no more trace of it, and the appearance of the gate itself had changed, too – as is testified by one of his own watercolours from 1850:

Anton Stutzinger, The Rotenturm Gate in Vienna (interior view)
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

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Advent Calendar – Door 5: Two gates in Vienna

Gate of Palais Caprara-Geymüller, Vienna, 1694–1698
Elemér Révhelyi collection, Kuny Domokos Museum, Tata (CC BY)

Browsing through the Europeana database, I stumbled upon the intriguing photographic collection of Hungarian art historian Elemér Révhelyi (1889–1976). Now housed in the Kuny Domokos Museum in Tata, Hungary, it comprises several thousand images, most of them apparently taken in the first half of the 20th century. In accordance with Révhelyi’s research interests, there is a strong focus on architecture and art of the Baroque era, but other periods are well represented, too. In geographic terms, the emphasis is on the former kingdom of Hungary, i.e. present-day Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, but there’s a good selection of works from Germany and Austria, especially Vienna, as well.

I was particularly fascinated by a photograph showing one of the gates of Vienna’s Archiepiscopal Curia (Erzbischöfliches Churhaus), built in 1738–1740 and located right next to the cathedral:

Gate of the Erzbischöfliches Churhaus, Vienna, 1738–1740
Elemér Révhelyi collection, Kuny Domokos Museum, Tata (CC BY)

What intrigued me most, however, was not so much the gate itself – adorned with sculptures of two of the Theological Virtues, it still looks exactly the same today. What really intrigued me was the one diverging detail, namely what appeared to be a tall, vertical sign with writing on it, placed next to the door at street level. When I zoomed into the image, to my surprise, I realised it was not a sign at all but a stretcher, placed there at everyone’s disposition. The writing on it actually reads: “Wiener freiwillige Rettungsgesellschaft – Tragbahre für jedermann [Viennese Voluntary Rescue Society – Stretcher for everyone]”.

As I have since discovered, the Viennese Voluntary Rescue Society was founded in 1881, in the aftermath of the disastrous fire in the Ringtheater that killed 449 people. In 1886, the Society put up stretchers for public use in case of emergency in twenty of the city’s most frequented public places. According to a newspaper report from 1888, they had been used 112 times in the course of the preceding year.

So, while looking at an old photograph of a Baroque doorway, I unexpectedly learned something new (to me) about the history of Vienna’s rescue service in the late 19th century. How cool is that?

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Advent Calendar – Door 4: The door of the church in Kal

The door of the church in Kal
K. u. k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle,
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

Another one from the Austro-Hungarian War Press Office: The church in Kal nad Kanalom, a village in what is now Slovenia, photographed in 1916. The photographer is standing inside the gloomy space of the church; light is streaming in through the open doors and the windows at either side of it. At the very centre of the composition, we see a soldier enter the building. Devoutly he has taken off his cap, holding it in his left hand, while his right is reaching for the stoup next to the door, to cross himself with holy water. Through the open door, one can discern the remains of ruinous houses, and there’s debris on the church floor. Even in the face of destruction, the image seems to say, this soldier has remained a pious man and finds comfort in the protecting walls of his faith.

There can be little doubt that the image is staged; it is, clearly, a carefully composed piece of visual propaganda, provided by the army’s official War Press Office which strictly controlled all images from the theatres of war that reached the public. And yet, with its symmetrical composition and its strong contrast of light and shadow, with its pensive mood and its vague echoes of Romantic paintings (such as the works of Caspar David Friedrich), this is also, I believe, a rather beautiful photo, not without artistic merit. Unfortunately, though, the identity of its creator is unknown – all we can say is that he was one of the hundreds of painters, sculptors, photographers and cameramen employed by the War Press Office between 1914 and 1918. The photographers alone produced well over 30.000 images! Now housed in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, they can be viewed online either through the Library’s own digital archive or via the Europeana Collections. For now, I will leave you with two more pictures of Kal nad Kanalom which show the full extent of destruction the village had suffered by 1916:

The church in Kal
K. u. k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle,
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

The village of Kal,
K. u. k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle,
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

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