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Self-portrait with family, c. 1820, Behnhaus.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck (4 July 1789 – 1869), was a German painter and member of the Nazarene movement. He also made four etchings.

Biography

Born in Lübeck, his ancestors for three generations had been Protestant pastors; his father Christian Adolph Overbeck (1755-1821) was doctor of law, poet, mystic pietist and burgomaster of Lübeck. His grandparents were Georg Christian Overbeck (1713-1786), lawyer in Lübeck, and Eleonora Maria Jauch (1732-1797). Within a stone's throw of the family mansion in the Konigstrasse stood the Gymnasium, where the uncle, doctor of theology and a voluminous writer, was the master; there the nephew became a classic scholar and received instruction in art.

The young artist left Lübeck in March 1806, and entered as student the academy of Vienna, then under the direction of Heinrich Füger. Füger had trained under the French neoclassic painter Jacques-Louis David. While Overbeck clearly accrued some of the polished technical aspects of the neoclassic painters, he was alienated by lack of religious spirituality in the themes chosen by his masters. Overbeck wrote to a friend that he had fallen among a vulgar set, that every noble thought was suppressed within the academy and that losing all faith in humanity, he had turned inward to his faith for inspiration. In Overbeck's view, the nature of earlier European art had been corrupted throughout contemporary Europe, starting centuries before the French Revolution, and the process of discarding its Christian orientation was proceeding further now. He sought to express Christian art before the corrupting influence of the late Renaissance, casting aside his contemporary influences, and taking as a guide early Italian Renaissance painters, up to and including Raphael. After four years, their differences between his group and others in the academy had grown so irreconcilable, that Overbeck and his followers were expelled. True art, he writes, he had sought in Vienna in vain:

Oh! I was full of it; my whole fancy was possessed by Madonnas and Christs, but nowhere could I find response.

Accordingly he left for Rome, carrying his half-finished canvas "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem", as the charter of his creed "I will abide by the Bible; I elect it as my standing-point."

Overbeck in 1810 entered Rome, which became for 59 years the centre of his labor. He was joined by a company of like-minded artists, including Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow and Philipp Veit, who jointly housed in the old Franciscan convent of San Isidoro, and became known among friends and enemies by the descriptive epithet the Nazarenes, the German-Roman artists, the church-romantic painters, the German patriotic and religious painters. Their precept was hard and honest work and holy living; they eschewed the antique as pagan, the Renaissance as false, and built up a severe revival on simple nature and on the serious art of Perugino, Pinturicchio, Francia and the young Raphael. The characteristics of the style thus educed were nobility of idea, precision and even hardness of outline, scholastic composition, with the addition of light, shade and colour, not for allurement, but chiefly for perspicuity and completion of motive. Overbeck was mentor in the movement; a fellow-labourer writes: No one who saw him or heard him speak could question his purity of motive, his deep insight and abounding knowledge; he is a treasury of art and poetry, and a saintly man. But the struggle was hard and poverty its reward. Helpful friends, however, came in Niebuhr, Bunsen and Frederick Schlegel. Overbeck in 1813 joined the Roman Catholic Church, and thereby he believed that his art received Christian baptism.

Italia und Germania (Neue Pinakothek).

Timely commissions followed. The Prussian consul, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy (1779-1825, uncle of Felix Mendelssohn), had a house on the brow of the Pincian, called Palazzo Zuccari or Casa Bartholdy, and he engaged the quartet of Overbeck, Cornelius, Veit and Schadow to fresco a room 7 m square (now in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin) with episodes from the story of Joseph and his Brethren. The subjects which fell to the lot of Overbeck were the Seven Years of Famine and Joseph sold by his Brethren. These tentative wall-pictures, finished in 1818, produced so favourable an impression among the Italians that in the same year Prince Massimo commissioned Overbeck, Cornelius, Veit and Schnorr to cover the walls and ceilings of his garden pavilion, near St. John Lateran, with frescoes illustrative of Tasso, Dante and Ariosto. To Overbeck was assigned, in a room 5 m square, the illustration of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered; and of eleven compositions the largest and most noteworthy, occupying one entire wall, is the Meeting of Godfrey de Bouillon and Peter the Hermit. After ten years delay, the overtaxed and enfeebled painter delegated the completion of the frescoes to his friend Joseph von Führich. The leisure thus gained was devoted to a thoroughly congenial theme, the Vision of St Francis, a wall-painting 6.5 m long, figures life size, finished in 1830, for the Porziuncola in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi.

Overbeck and the brethren set themselves the task of recovering the neglected art of fresco and of monumental painting; they adopted the old methods, and their success led to memorable revivals throughout Europe.

Fifty years of the artist's laborious life were given to oil and easel paintings, including:

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem
  • Christ's Entry into Jerusalem (1824), in the Marienkirche.(destroyed through Allied bombing, Palm Sunday 1942).
  • Christ's Agony in the Garden (1835), in the great hospital, Hamburg.
  • Lo Sposalizio (1836), Muzeum Narodowe, Poznań, Poland.
  • The Triumph of Religion in the Arts (1840), in the Städel Institute, Frankfurt.
  • Pietà (1846), in the Marienkirche, Lübeck.
  • The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1851), first in the possession of Beresford Hope, London, now in the Schäfer collection, Schweinfurt, Germany.
  • The Assumption of the Madonna (1855), in Cologne Cathedral.
  • Christ Delivered from the Jews (1858), tempera, originally on a ceiling in the Quirinal Palace. It is a commission from Pius IX, and a direct attack on the Italian temporal government, therefore later covered by a canvas adorned with Cupids, and now hanging in front of the Aula delle Benedizione in the Vatican .
  • Drawings for the frescoes for the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Đakovo (1867-1869).

All the artist's works are marked by religious fervour, careful and protracted study, with a dry, severe handling, and an abstemious colour.

Overbeck belongs to eclectic schools, and yet was creative; he ranks among thinkers, and his pen was hardly less busy than his pencil. He was a minor poet, an essayist and a voluminous letter-writer. His style is wordy and tedious; like his art it is borne down with emotion and possessed by a somewhat morbid subjectivity. His pictures were didactic, and used as means of propaganda for his artistic and religious faith, and the teachings of such compositions as the Triumph of Religion and the Sacraments he enforced by rapturous literary effusions. His art was the issue of his life: his constant thoughts, cherished in solitude and chastened by prayer, he transposed into pictorial forms, and thus were evolved countless and much-prized drawings and cartoons, of which the most considerable are the Gospels, forty cartoons (1852); Via Crucis, fourteen water-color drawings (1857); the Seven Sacraments, seven cartoons (1861). Overbeck's compositions, with few exceptions, are engraved. His life-work he sums up in the words "Art to me is as the harp of David, whereupon I would desire that psalms should at all times be sounded to the praise of the Lord."

He died in Rome in 1869. He was interred in the church of San Bernardo alle Terme

References

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links


1911 encyclopedia

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