Art can make you laugh…

I’ve had a bit of fun discovering a German artist called Carl Spitzweg over recent weeks. My continued isolation in a cottage in rural England has given me plenty of time to read and think and discover. I was intrigued by the painting below, which I came across whilst researching the history of the Grand Tour. It shows a small party of elegantly dressed and suitably hatted young travellers being introduced to the wonders of a series of ruined temples somewhere in the Italian countryside. My attention was captured by the depiction of the characters and the humour that pervades the scene. I’d accidentally come across a German artist, previously unknown to me, with a great sense of humour.

Carl Spitzweg was a painter, poet and artist. He was born in 1808 and died in Munich in 1885. He painted this scene of a small group of wonderfully earnest young Grand Tourists getting to grips with some seriously archaeological ruins in Southern Italy or possibly Sicily in the 1830s. In the centre of the painting a very formal, top-hatted tour guide (sometimes known as a cicerone) explains in detail, elements of the ruins the visitors are seeing. On the right a young gentleman leans in a resigned fashion against a boulder. Then in the background a young lady is sketching what she sees. The scene is comical, the artist has observed the reality of a visit to a site of classical antiquity. A mixture of intense interest and barely concealed boredom, depending on the perspective of the visitor. Spitzweg’s ability to capture this range of human behaviour is impressive and accurate. The tall fellow with the monocle and wide brimmed hat, reads carefully from his guide book. His wife (companion) has a red book under her arm (probably a Baedeker’s guide). Meanwhile their own private tour guide is singing for his supper!!

Artist - Carl Spitzweg - English Tourists in the 'Campagna' c. 1835
English Tourists in the ‘Campagna’ c. 1835 – artist Carl Spitzweg – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie.

Much of my own inspiration for travelling in Europe was provided by the Grand Tourists who were the original people to travel from the British Isles through France and Switzerland down to the Italian Peninsula, in search of culture, art, history and most importantly, parties, gambling and night life. In those days (from around the 1720 onwards) travel was a complicated affair. Firstly you had to be wealthy and take plenty of cash, secondly you had to be prepared for hour upon hour in bumpy carriages or on horseback or even on foot. These intrepid early travellers often got taken advantage of – not least by unscrupulous tour guides and ‘antiques’ dealers, selling items that were not necessarily ‘antique’. However their tenacity was impressive and it is this quality that Carl Spitzweg captures so brilliantly in his ‘Grand Tourist’ painting. You can read a brief History of the Grand Tour here.

Having discovered the tone and capability of Spitzweg’s art I felt compelled to learn more about his work. The next painting to interest me was this elegy entitled ‘The Intercepted Love Letter’. A young man (probably a student because of his cap), is lowering a letter from his window to the window of a young woman who lives below. Unfortunately her lady’s maid or governess spots the piece of paper and her virtuous horror is clear for all to see. The older lady is wearing a large crucifix crudely identifying her as a woman of faith. Her open-mouthed astonishment is comical. The young lady is so engrossed in her needlework that she appears not to notice the letter hovering on the breeze. For good measure Spitzweg has added a couple of doves or pigeons, balanced on the gutter to the right of the love letter, a reference perhaps to courting couples……..

The intercepted love letter is a charming commentary on love and courtship in the 19th century

The next painting to catch my eye is one of Spitzweg’s most famous ‘The Book Worm’ or ‘Der Bucherwurm’ in German. Again the humorous portrayal of the subject is immediately clear. The man, quite literally, has his nose in a book. He’s holding another book in his right hand and under his arm there’s another large tome. For good measure these’s another large volume secured between the gentleman’s knees. The library is brilliantly depicted too. It is a typical Baroque library of the 19th century, with heavily engraved, polished wooden book shelves. The gentleman’s attentions are focused on the ‘Metaphysik’ section. There’s a subtext here too – the book worm is unconcerned with worldly events. He is so bookish and book obsessed that he risks falling off the tottering steps into the caverns of leather-bound books below. He has all he needs in the pages of a book! I’ve written extensively about libraries in the past. The library that this picture brings to mind is the superb library of St Gallen in Switzerland. You can read more about this unique ‘sanatorium for the mind’ here: The Library of St Gallen, Switzerland

The Book Worm lords it over those below him, on the top step of an improbably high set of library steps. Books towering vertically….
My final choice of painting has got to be the brilliantly evocative ‘The Poor Poet’ who sits, fully dressed in his rather ramshackle bed, quill poised…

My final choice of painting has got to be the painfully comic ‘Der Arme Poet’ the poor poet, sitting in his leaking attic, waiting for inspiration to come. The umbrella is dextrously positioned above the noble man – after all a person of great genius must be kept warm and comfortable whilst the next epic or masterpiece is created. This reminds me of the film ‘Withnail and I’ starring Richard E. Grant as a penniless actor living in the most vile and filthy hovel in London whilst waiting impatiently for his next big break. The subject here is of course a victim of his own genius. He is a man of vast and impressive intellect, sadly misunderstand and undervalued by those around him. It is his burden to wait patiently for the ‘opus magnus’ to appear and elevate him into the palaces and stately homes of the kingdom, it’s only a matter of time……………….

I’d like to dedicate this article to my daughter Lucy Simmonds who is an accomplished writer in her own right and whose love of Germany and German culture has encouraged me to discover new characters and new territories. She has also opened my eyes to the rich culture and heritage of German cities like Trier and Marburg, not to mention some really excellent ‘trocken’ wines. She writes regularly at lucindasimmonds.wordpress.com

Thanks for reading – don’t hesitate to let me know what resonates with you.

Intercepted Love Letter – detail

Notes:

  • Please explore Fairy Tales, Fiction and Philosophy for more on the rich cultural heritage of Germany.
  • The essential guide book in the 19th century to Italy and the Alps was either a John Murray guide book or a Baedeker’s (written by Karl Baedeker). As the name suggestions Baedeker was German, his guides were translated in to English in the mid-19th century.
  • If you’d like to find out more about Carl Spitzweg there are numerous paintings of his to be found on line. There are also several extensive collections of his work – as follows:
  • Georg Schafer Museum, Schweinfurt, Germany – has an excellent collection of Carl Spitzweg paintings: www.museumgeorgschafer.de
  • Slightly less obvious and a delightful find for my North American friends. There’s a large collection of Carl Spitzweg paintings in The Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee which is part of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. https://www.msoe.edu/grohmann-museum/
A final humorous take on life in the mid-19th century. A gnome watches a steam train rumbling through the valley below - 1848
A final humorous take on life in the mid-19th century. A gnome watches a steam train rumbling through the valley below – 1848
I can’t help thinking this may be Carl having the last laugh! An artist’s life is SO hard……
The Stagecoach arrives with it’s passengers, so exciting, new people, new places……

First published: 29th November, 2020

5 thoughts on “Art can make you laugh…

  1. Well done, Janet! Not that I was actually asleep, before – but you have still opened my eyes – not least to the brilliance and appeal of Carl Spitzweg, whose surname so accurately describes his talent for “pointing the way”!
    You ask what resonated withyour reader? In my case, I’ll avoid the temptation to say “everything about the article, and the brilliant and informative way in which you have written it” – and focus on the gentle humour of the artist, which shines through all the paintings which you have quite righly highlighted.
    I was interested to read about the further Spitzweg paintings in Schweinfurt (where my second cousins still live) and, of all places, Milwaukee (of Schlitz, Papst & Budweiser (where my Mother was born, and which was “second home” during my teenage years – I was a firm Milwaukee Braves Fan!)
    Not having been aware of either Museum, I will certainly put that omission right, once we are free from the current worse-than-wartime restritions!
    Congratulations and thanks again, and to Lucy, to whose blog I also subscribe. (Like Mother, like Daughter)!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! Thank you for this interesting discovery. And music too. Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle – recently performed and broadcast by Teatro La Fenice – has a couple of moments that always make me burst out laughing. And I remember explaining to a friend who as a theatre director was struggling to find the humour in Rossini’s Barber of Seville that he just had to listen: it’s the music that’s funny, far more than the libretto.

    Elaine Calder & William J. Bennett 103 – 1500 Elford Street Victoria, BC V8R 3X8

    778-265-7633 home 250-813-2203 mobile (Elaine)

    Liked by 1 person

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