The Force of Nature. Realism and the Düsseldorf School of Painting 03/07/2015 – 08/11/2015

Kumu Art Museum
Adult: Kumu Art Museum
  • Family: Kumu Art Museum
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Oskar Hoffmann. Ajalehte lugev mees (detail). 1902. Eesti Kunstimuuseum

The Force of Nature. Realism and the Düsseldorf School of Painting

Location: 2nd floor, Great Hall

The ideas of realism, which began to spread in the second half of the 19th century, reached the Baltic countries mainly through the artists who had worked and studied in Düsseldorf. Although most of them were Baltic Germans, their works belong to Estonian and Latvian art history because of the authors’ origins and local subject matter.

In the 18th century, the city of Düsseldorf gradually turned into an art centre, but it was not until 1819 that an art academy as an educational institution was established there. The Düsseldorf Academy flourished in 1826–1859, when it was directed by one of the founders of the Düsseldorf School of painting, Wilhelm von Schadow. During that period, many artists from Scandinavia, Russia (including Estonia and Livonia) and America came to study at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts, where they found capable teachers and an academic community that had become quite close-knit by that time. Evidence of the fact that it was a truly cosmopolitan community can be found by noting where the Baltic students of the Düsseldorf Academy were born and died: practically all over Europe.

In Schadow’s day, such Baltic German artists as Alexander Heubel, Hermann Eduard Hartmann, Ernst Hermann Schlichting, Theodor Albert Sprengel and Leopold von Pezold studied at the Düsseldorf Academy. After completing their studies and returning to their home countries, their art continued to express the emotional tensions of romantic art characteristic of the Düsseldorf School of painting, which were later replaced by an increasing truthfulness to nature. The influence of the school increased from the 1870s onwards, when Eugen Dücker and Eduard von Gebhardt, both from Estonia, were appointed professors at the art academy. The arrival of these artists gave new momentum to the Düsseldorf Academy, which was going through a period of decline. With the aim of studying nature in its various states and depicting the colourful details of everyday life, the new professors moved away from the academic ideal of beauty. It was the presence of compatriot teachers that most probably encouraged a whole generation of Estonian-born artists to choose the Düsseldorf Academy for their further art studies. Later on, the professors and their students formed a group of artists guided by the spirit and ideals of the Düsseldorf School. This combination of naturalism and rationality served as the foundation for the intriguing union of truthfulness and abstract messages of faith that characterise the religious pictures of Eduard von Gebhardt. Truth, beauty and ideas were intertwined, and the simple and the mundane were transformed into visual parables.

The principle of moderate realism was particularly well expressed in the landscape and genre paintings of the Düsseldorf School. Uniting elements of landscape and genre painting was just as natural for the students of the Düsseldorf Academy as was following the example of 17th-century Dutch art. Gradually, a number of themes became prevalent in their genre paintings: on the one hand, they depicted traditional pub and family scenes, the everyday life of peasants, and towards the end of the 19th century motifs of illness and death; on the other hand, seaside motifs and the life of fishermen came to be known as typical themes of the Düsseldorf School. The artists remained attached to their home country through their depictions of Estonian nature and the vigorous rural culture, which served as one of the main sources of inspiration for the Düsseldorf School.

The Düsseldorf School brought realism to Estonian art. It was a level-headed kind of realism, with occasional lapses into satire or sentimentality, which at the end of the 19th century increasingly incorporated the achievements of plein air painting and impressionism.

Exhibition curator: Tiina Abel
Exhibition designers: Mari Kurismaa and Tuuli Aule
Graphic designer: Tiit Jürna

Eesti Kultuurkapital, Advokaadibüroo Cobalt and Akzo Nobel Baltics AS