German painter Carl Spitzweg is considered one of the foremost artists of the Biedermeier era, a transitional period spanning the three decades between the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the Revolution of 1848. The Biedermeier era celebrated simple, middle-class sensibilities and the importance of family and community, not the emotionally-heightened individualistic experiences preached by the Romantics. Spitzweg, in particular, created numerous portraits of the average citizen going about his or her daily routine in a decidedly unprofound way. Like many of his contemporaries, he was greatly influenced by the Dutch seventeenth-century masters, such as Frans van Mieris, Jan Steen and Gerard Terborch. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu writes, “…the similarities between Biedermeier and seventeenth-century Dutch painting were not merely due to the ubiquity of Dutch art; they also reflected common social and political values. In Germany as well as in France, the bourgeois culture of the seventeenth-century Dutch republic was a model for the liberal bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century” (Nineteenth-Century European Art, 2003, p. 296).
In addition to creating domestic scenes of the humble yet culturally-minded German middle-class lifestyle of the 1830s and 40s, Biedermeier artists also depicted Nature as it related to humanity. While the Romantics were chiefly interested in conveying the individual’s relationship with Nature as an infinitely profound, almost religious, experience, Biedermeier artists such as Spitzweg sought to reflect a more toned down, simple appreciation of Nature. This composition brings to mind German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich’s powerful depictions of man contemplating Nature.
Spitzweg trained (1825–8), at his father’s insistence, as a pharmacist, by 1829 becoming manager of a pharmacy in the Straubing district of Munich. From 1830 to 1832 he made advanced studies in pharmacy, botany and chemistry at the University of Munich, passing his final examination with distinction. On receiving a large legacy in 1833, which made him financially independent, he decided to become a painter. He had drawn since the age of 15 and had frequented artistic circles since the late 1820s; but he had no professional training as a painter. He learnt much from contacts with young Munich landscape painters such as Eduard Schleich the elder and produced his first oil paintings in 1834. In 1835 he became a member of the Munich Kunstverein but left two years later due to disappointment over the reception of the first version of the Poor Poet (1837; Munich, Neue Pinacoteca; second version 1839; Berlin, Neue National Gallery), a scene of gently humorous pathos that has since become his most celebrated work. Spitzweg’s decision to leave the Kunstverein, however, was also encouraged by his first successful attempts to sell his paintings independently. In 1839 he travelled to Dalmatia, where he made sketches that he used for many later works on Turkish themes (e.g. the Turkish Coffee House, c. 1860; Munich, Schack-Gallery). From the 1840s he travelled regularly, usually with his close friend, the painter Schleich, both within Bavaria and to Austria and Switzerland and also to the Adriatic coast, especially to Trieste. At this time Spitzweg generally painted humorous scenes, most of them showing individual figures in comic situations, for example the Butterfly Catcher (c. 1840; Wiesbaden, Museum Wiesbaden).
From 1844 to 1852 Spitzweg worked as an illustrator for the new Munich satirical magazine, Fliegende Blätter. He was much influenced during these years by the work of French caricaturists such as Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré and Jean-Jacques Grandville, but his work gained in immediacy through its setting in a realistically rendered German milieu recognizable to his public, even though it lacked a socially critical aim or any political dimension. In works such as The Mineralogist (c. 1854; Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum) enraptured by his find, the combination of gentle humour and melancholy resignation secured Spitzweg’s appeal to a large market far beyond Munich.
The end of the 1840s and the beginning of the next decade brought other sources of inspiration. From 1847 onwards he was friendly with the painter Moritz von Schwind. In 1848 Spitzweg made his first visit to the collection of Old Master paintings at the Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, where he returned to sketch during the next year. In 1849 he went to Prague where he came to know the work of the Czech painters Josef Mánes and Josef Navrátil. In the Synagogue (1849; Schweinfurt, Samml. Schäfer) records his impressions of the city with an affectionate and sharply observed realism. In 1850–51 he visited both the Exposition Universelle in Paris and the International Exhibition in London. In Paris he was particularly impressed by the work of the Barbizon school of landscape painters and the oil sketches of Eugène Delacroix. From c. 1850 Spitzweg’s painting style became increasingly open and relaxed. The character of the individual brushstroke played a more decisive role, and this led Spitzweg to an extremely light application of dots of colour. Spitzweg shifted his attention away from the comic nature of the protagonists to the mood of the setting, whether an urban night scene with musicians or night-watchmen in a small town (e.g. Spanish Musicians, 1855–6; Munich, Schack-Gallery) or a country lane with two lovers (e.g. Couple in a Wood, c. 1860; Kassel, Neue Gallery). Here humour turned into lyrical idyll: Spitzweg evoked a harmonious, fairy-tale world, with the potentially alienating elements of voyeurism, scepticism and resignation subsumed into unquestioning appreciation. In the 1860s Spitzweg began to focus on landscape rather than figures. He exhibited four works at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, and he moved towards a freer and bolder style. Many works from Spitzweg’s later years reflect his own situation more directly, being records of life restricted to attic rooms such as the one he lived in in Munich from 1863.
Spitzweg is represented in the following collections: Louvre, Paris; Neue Pinakothek, Munich; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg; Kunstmuseum St.Gallen, Switzerland; Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin; Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany; Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, amongst others.