Monday, March 16, 2015

German domestic life in the age of Goethe

A Domestic Scene (MMA 1971.115.6)
I frequently pass by this small painting when I am at the Metropolitan Museum, as I was today. It naturally makes me think of Goethe. The living quarters of the Goethe House in Frankfurt are not as luxurious as those represented here, but the painting may give an example of actual conditions somewhere in the Rhineland. Perhaps the house of Lili Sch├Ânemann? And certainly the father is reading aloud to the ladies, which we know was a family activity in the Goethe household.

The painting is attributed to "German Painter" and dated 1775–80. It was originally thought to be by the Dresden painter Johann Eleazar Zeissig, called Schenau (1737–1806),  but, according to the Met's website, comparison with secured works by that painter in 2013 turned up differences in style.

The website suggests several painters who might have executed this work, including Goethe portraitist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. At left is an example of a family portrait by Tischbein, also in the Met (MMA 2002.564): The Children of Martin Anton Heckscher, from 1805. The painting was donated to the Met in 1971, "Gift of the family of August Heckscher II, in his memory." Martin Anton Heckscher, originally Marcus Abraham Heckscher, a descendent of a long-established banking family in Hamburg Altona, converted to Christianity to escape the rising anti-Jewish sentiments of Hamburg merchants. His son Charles August Heckscher (born 1806) emigrated to the United States in 1829 and acquired wealth by opening a trading house. Later, he seems to have become fabulously wealthy in the anthracite business. It is interesting that the painting of the three boys remained in the Heckscher family for so many years. This makes me think of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, in which family wealth led to decadence as symbolized by art; not so in the case of the Heckschers, however, whose wealth and love for the arts continue to enrich public institutions.

Another suggestion for A Domestic Scene is the painter Kaspar Benedikt Beckenkamp, whose portrait of the married couple below, from 1795, is in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. There is something about the Beckenkamp painting that suggests the milieu in which Goethe lived in Weimar in these years.

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