Set in motion by the cataclysmic changes of the French Revolution, the romantic period in Germany extolled the glorious individual, in particular the type of the genius, most characteristically represented by Goethe and Beethoven . The high romantic period ended around the year 1815, to be replaced in Germany by an ideology of moderation and balance, the Biedermeier period. Biedermeier contained in considerably subdued form elements of romanticism combined with elements of realism. It looked back to the Enlightenment and classicism in its arts and crafts. Its literature tended more and more in the direction of prose, and the depiction of ordinary people in the novella, or short novel. Poetry became more prose-like as well.  The most characteristic arts, crafts and literature of the Biedermeier were produced from about 1815-1835. This short era had already receded into the past when Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) started painting genre works based on the period.
Nonetheless the painter Karl Spitzweg became known as "Der Biedermeiermaler:" His trademark style defined not just the outward appearance but the mythology of 19th century German petit bourgeois existence. His paintings depicted in a nostalgic fashion the simple pleasures of everyday life in Germany in a time of peace and prosperity. Biedermeier elevated coziness and stability as values for ordinary Germans, a static view of social and material existence. Spitzweg initially painted this life and these people for themselves, as they wanted to be depicted (and as they wished to see others.) He did not pitch his appeal to the high art connoisseur. Thus his art was representational and full of details, the very opposite of the later international impressionist style.
Pre-revolutionary 19th century Germany, as Spitzweg depicted it, was charming, full of the peaceful golden light of provincial (Bavarian) small-town life, but also static and cliché ridden. Spitzweg's rendition of the "Armer Poet, " (1837)(the poor poet) for example, shows a funny looking fellow huddled in bed reading in his garret, while keeping the rain off his head with an umbrella. This is not a depiction of real poverty but of cuteness and picturesqueness. In typical Spitzweg fashion, such a picture flatters the sensibilities of the economically secure while implying that even in a garret life is peaceful and no one really suffers. The affect is flat, sentimentality with a gentle touch of humor. It's difficult, though, not to be fascinated by the few objects the poet possesses, the ragged blanket, the books, the broken umbrella, the basin, which seem to express more than the human figure of the poet. Spitzweg's later work is less obvious in its message, and more satirical, but this painting is the one people recognize and his most popular.
Spitzweg did many portraits of cactuses, existing modestly in tiny, cozy flats and on balconies. The cactus in Germany could stand as the symbol of the limited and isolated existence of the "Kleinbürger" In its pot/home, surviving on small amounts of food and water, the cactus lived within its restrictions, as the small Burger did, because it had no choice.
Spitzweg's mineralogist, holding a rock in his hand, eyes bulging out in astonishment, or the butterfly collectors amazed by their specimens, poke gentle, pleasant (but perhaps not entirely harmless) fun at plain looking, unimportant people. Even his Turks, often shown elsewhere as sinister and possibly homicidal, look pleasant and untemperamental as he paints them.
Spitzweg's tiny canvases are crammed with detail; they perfectly reflect the magpie-like acquisition of trinkets and doo-dads and the small claustrophobic spaces that characterized the domestic arrangements of the Kleinbürger. There is an undeniable charm here, and the ancient Bavarian towns where his subjects lived, with their balconies full of plants and the peaceful golden light over all, seem like reminders of a lost domestic paradise. But Spitzweg's people are frozen into attitudes, as if overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the masonry enclosing them and the oppressive social roles they have to fill--these roles suggested but never shown.
His young girls sit picturesquely yet pensively in their windows, looking out into the street, waiting for their real lives to begin. We do not see them performing the domestic tasks which bind them to their homes. Young lovers huddle together, as if for mutual defense, as do the overdressed townspeople in the country on their Sunday walks, being led along by an absurd paterfamilias.
In this later painting, Sontagsspaziergang (Sunday Stroll) (1841). the human figures have become less detailed and more caricatured and contrast sharply with the exquisite country surroundings.. As I looked at this I wondered what one might be expected to think about these pretentious, tastelessly attired boors walking through a field of ripe wheat. Satire emerges in the foreground.
One sees obvious parallels in Spitzweg to the American genre painter Norman Rockwell and Rockwell's homely-but-cute freckle-faced boys and girls and odd-looking family doctors, also harmless and whimsical. But Norman Rockwell had no satirical intent. And unlike Rockwell, Spitzweg himself did not resemble the people he painted. He was trained as a pharmacist but became a painter after only one year of practicing pharmacy. He was a distant man, dignified in the stuffy German fashion, something of an aristocrat, and well-traveled , having been to Venice, London and Prague.
Among the many oddities among Spitzweg's paintings, Strikender Wachposten (Watchman at his post,knitting) (1855) stands out. It portrays the dilemma of soldiers with no war to fight, knitting while the sparrows nest in their cannons. This is a culmination of the phenomenon of Verharmlosen (making something seem harmless.) Just as Spitzweg's poet will never actually starve, so will his soldiers never fight. For Eternity, they will wait for the war to begin. Soldiers without a war to fight are absurd, of course, but later observers could reflect that it might be better to seem silly or useless than to kill or be killed. The wish for peace and security, as well as the distaste for the real business of warfare, informs these pictures and reflects the desire of ordinary citizens to live in peacetime and to be grateful for small blessings.
In his old age, Spitzweg, under the influence of the Impressionists, changed his painting style radically. He became much freer and bolder in his work. In this way he reflected the greater freedom and cosmopolitanism enjoyed briefly in the latter part of the 19th Century by the Kleinbürger. Spitzweg now painted galloping horses and carriage teams, excited people in the streets, panoramas and open spaces. Toward the end of his life Spitzweg extended his imaginative range all the way to Spain and did a study of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. None of this latter work is what he is remembered for.
Spitzweg was among the first caricaturists, along with the Englishman Hogarth and the Frenchman Daumier. His stylistic influence on Wilhelm Busch and Georg Grosz is obvious, but he was gentler and less cynical than his successors.
The critical consensus on him is that he is a high quality genre artist. He is akin to Norman Rockwell in his depiction of "ordinary" people and everyday situations but more "painterly" and more satirical. I've seen a few of his paintings"in person" and they are visually delightful.
Marianna Scheffer 1988, revised 2016
Hermand, Jost. Die literarisch Formenwelt des Biedermeiers. Giessen, Wilhelm Schmitz Verlag, 1958. Excellent insights as well as thorough in its treatment, but no index.
Rel: Annette Droste-Hülshoff and the Gothic.
Wilhelm Busch borrowed this depiction of the scholar's life from Spitzweg
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