Friday, February 15, 2008

My Two Left Feet

When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe traveled to Italy in 1786, it seemed natural that he would strike up a friendship with fellow German artist Johann Tischbein, who had been living in Rome for several years learning from the masters of the Renaissance. Born February 15, 1751, Tischbein most famous painting, Goethe in the Roman Campagna (above, from 1787), shows the Romantic and Classical author surrounded by the ancient ruins that inspired many of his Romantic refashionings of Classical themes. Goethe in the Roman Campagna owes much of its fame to its subject, but Tischbein deserves some credit for creating the perfect setting. Unfortunately, Goethe was a busy man who couldn’t sit still to have his portrait painted, putting Tischbein in a bind when trying to complete the portrait. Distracted by such concerns, Tischbein didn’t notice that he had painted Goethe with two left feet. Such blunders were rare for Tischbein, who became one of the finest portraitists of his time.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm descended from a long line of distinguished painters in the Tischbein family. He continued the family business in taking commissions from wealthy patrons to paint their families, such as his The Children of Martin Anton Heckscher (above, from 1805). Unlike Goethe, all the boys have the correct arrangement of feet. Unfortunately, their body language, especially that of the boy seated and playing with his dog, seems to have lost something in translation. The awkwardness of the children seems even worse compared with the skillful handling of the natural setting used as a backdrop. Just as Tischbein placed Goethe in a neo-classical setting in accordance with Goethe’s writings, Tischbein places the Heckscher boys in a natural setting to play up the Romantic idealism of childhood’s innocence that originated in the neo-Platonism of the Romantic movement.

Tischbein gave Lady Charlotte Campbell (above) a similar neo-classical treatment. Painted while Lady Charlotte travelled through Italy, this portrait turns the famous beauty and future poet and novelist into a classical muse or goddess surrounded by the Edenic paradise of nature. Tischbein allegedly fell in love with Lady Charlotte while painting her, stunned by the combination of beauty and brains. The awkwardness and anatomical irregularities of other portraits disappear in this lovingly attentive portrait. It’s easy to imagine him lingering over the draping of the flowing gown, musing upon the forms hidden beneath, and asking the good Lady Charlotte to linger a little while longer until all the details were complete.

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