German Expats, particularly those hailing from Dresden, played decisive and undervalued roles in the development of Neoclassicism in the eighteenth century. The belief that Greco-Roman Antiquity offered the ideal cultural and intellectual model for the development of modern society percolated from the epicenter of Dresden, the city leveled by American and British planes on Valentine’s Day 1945 in an unanticipated attack that killed tens of thousands of civilians.
August III (1696-1763), simultaneously King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, governed from his home in Dresden. He belonged to a cohort of rulers—Friedrich the Great, Emperor of Prussia; Joseph II, Emperor of Austria; Johann Friedrich Struensee, short-lived, de facto ruler of Denmark; and Louis XVI, King of France and August III’s grandnephew; and later Ludwig I, King of Bavaria—determined to initiate the transformation of their nations along egalitarian, democratic lines and to institute a new era—a renaissance—of cultural and scientific progress. He could not have envisioned the impact that his reign would have on the trajectory of European art. With interests more intellectual than military-political, August III educated his sixteen children according to Enlightenment principles. Consistent with his populist convictions, August III established in Dresden an orphanage and hospital, in addition to building Dresden Cathedral, collecting art, and employing Johann Sebastian Bach as his court composer. Unlike most rulers of his time, August III remained a faithful and loving husband and father.
His daughter Princess Maria Amalia (1724-1760) married King Charles VII (1716-1788; later Charles III, King of Spain), ruler of Naples and the Two Sicilies, in 1738. Like her parents, Queen Maria Amalia enjoyed a devoted partnership-style marriage, and likely played a pivotal role in promoting the excavations at Herculaneum (begun in 1737) and Pompeii (begun in 1748). It may well have been her idea to launch the series of opulent catalogues embellished with engravings that documented the sites’ key art and archaeological finds. These were gifted to Europe’s most powerful rulers, thereby celebrating the nation’s (and rulers’) taste and sophistication. In this way, respect for this small and otherwise insignificant kingdom spread to the most powerful courts of Europe and the new discoveries from the ancient world reached eagerly awaiting court artists throughout Europe shortly after they were unearthed.
In 1755, August III, provided Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), a teacher of Greek and Latin who subsequently became librarian to Count Heinrich von Bünau in nearby Nöthnitz, with a salary so he could study ancient art at its source: Rome. That same year—and before he left for Rome, Winckelmann published the book that made him a contemporary celebrity: Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. Although he had never seen an original work of Greek art, Winckelmann identified its principle characteristic as embodying “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” a catchphrase that continues to aid students today in identifying Neoclassical works of art. At the time, Greece was relatively inaccessible because of its occupation by the Ottomans (Turks), although many Greek sculptures, originals and copies, resided in Vatican and other Roman collections. Swiss painter Heinrich Füseli (1741-1825) translated Thoughts into English in 1765, thereby making it accessible to a broad (and literate) international audience.
Winckelmann, despite inauspicious beginnings as the son of an impoverished cobbler father and a weaver mother, became librarian and art advisor to Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), officially one of Rome’s wealthiest clerics, but mainly the possessor of an outstanding collection of ancient art, which Winckelmann catalogued. Albani was also an enthusiastic patron of the arts and an even more enthusiastic dealer in antiquities, both original and fake, which he hawked to unsuspecting Grand Tourists eager for authentic souvenirs of their adventure abroad. During his Grand Tour to Rome, Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) met Winckelmann and, upon his return to London in 1758, became the United Kingdom’s premier Neoclassical architect, designing the Drury Lane Theatre in London and Register House in Edinburgh.
The openly homosexual Winckelmann moved in with the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, son of August III’s Court Painter, and his wife Margarita. The two men formed the nucleus of the German ex-pat community in Rome; the strength of their friendship evidenced by the posthumous portrait Mengs painted of his friend, which now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Winckelmann introduced Mengs to Cardinal Albani, paving the way to one of Neoclassicism’s landmark paintings, Parnassus, a fresco painted in 1761 on the ceiling of Albani’s home/showroom.
Although inspired unmistakably by items unearthed in the Herculaneum-Pompeii excavations as well as by Raphael’s famous Parnassus fresco (1510) in the Vatican, he was also inspired by Michaelangelo’s contemporary Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-12) because he, too, made the radical choice of placing a scene best viewed straight on, on a ceiling, thereby requiring visitors to crane their heads back to viewer the image. While an unusual choice (and rather annoying in terms of viewing comfort), it exemplified the qualities (especially noble simplicity and quiet grandeur) that typified Neoclassical art: a Greco-Roman mythological subject (Apollo, the Titan Mnemosyne and her nine daughters – the Muses), bilateral symmetry, and imitation of classical sculpture (Apollo is modelled after Greek sculptor Leochares’s fourth century BCE Apollo Belvedere).
From 1761-77, Mengs worked in Madrid for Charles III of Spain, who had left his post in Naples to assume the Spanish crown. Finding the time to father twenty children, Mengs died impoverished in Rome. I’ve always found it curious that Neoclassicism, associated so intimately with French artists working in Rome, originated more convincingly with a cohort of Enlightenment artists and intellectuals with German, specifically Saxon, roots. Just a half century later, in the 1810s, another cohort of German-speaking artists, The Brotherhood of Saint Luke, nicknamed the Nazarenes, collaborated in hopes of creating a public art that would transform German cities into modern iterations of Renaissance Florence, an aspiration nearly realized by Bavarian King Ludwig I. That members of this group became directors of the leading German art academies insured that their influence (and to some extent, their ideals) would dominate German painting throughout the nineteenth century.