Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Fleeting Fame of Anton von Werner

Anton von Werner directed the Prussian Academy of Art in Berlin from 1875 until his death in 1915.
Self portrait of Anton von Werner (1843-1915)
Because his work is associated with German military subjects, he is largely overlooked today. But he was greatly respected in his time. In his memoir, Emil Fuchs (American/Austrian 1866–1929) reflected on von Werner's renown:

Oil studies from life by Anton von Werner
"'The great Anton von Werner,' he was called. It was said of him that he could put more art into the painting of a soldier's boots than others could put into the face. His studio at the Academy was filled to overflowing with patriotic pictures. 

Proclamation of Prussian king Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles,
by Anton von Werner, 1885
"He painted the Proclamation of William the Great as Emperor at Versailles, the Negotiation of Peace at Versailles in which Bismarck forces Thiers to sign the Treaty, and innumerable other historic canvases. 

Illustration by Anton von Werner
"Von Werner was considered an institution in German art second only to the great Menzel, his illustrious contemporary. The Academy was proud of possessing so distinguished a leader. And excellent he doubtless was for that particular post. His speeches at the beginning and end of each term were considered classics of their kind. Even in my brief stay there, two things which he said still linger in my memory. At his opening address he took a piece of chalk, and holding it up, declared:

"'Talent is one. It is the basis of art. Without it any amount of industry is of no value.'

"Then he added a zero and held the one beside it. 'But,' he went on, 'talent and industry combined make ten.' 

"At another time he said, 'Academies are only for mediocrity. They are the crutches upon which art students learn to walk. But some of the students are born with wings—those are the geniuses. To them the academy is only a hindrance.' 

Anton von Werner, The Arrival of King Wilhelm I in Saarbrücken 
on 9th August 1870 (sketch above, finish below)

"When, before starting for Italy, I took leave of him, he gave me another grain from his supply of wisdom: 'If the world praises you, it is good; if it abuses you, that is not bad; but beware if it passes you in silence.' 

"Had anybody told him at that time that his pictures would be almost forgotten even before his death, he would have been astounded. So imbued was he with the sense of his own greatness and importance, with such deference was he treated by the high and lowly, that nothing but eternity could have appeared to him as a possible measure of his fame's duration."
Quote from Emil Fuchs, With Pencil, Brush, and Chisel: The Life of an Artist, 1925
Previously: Detective Storytelling (German soldiers billeted in chateau).
German Wikipedia lists von Werner's work in collections.
Thanks, Christian, Christoph, and Kev. 


Susan Krzywicki said...

That last sentence, "So imbued...," is a striking one. As humans, we really get into trouble over "fame," "success," and "winning."

When the ego expands to wrinkle up our sense of self-importance, art can be a way of smoothing out our troubles...but in some cases, it is the cause of the troubles.

How and where and when does sheer enjoyment of creating turn sideways?

The Painter of Parks said...

Thank you for bring him to our collective awareness. Do you happen to know what museums house the majority of these works?

Rich said...

Love these Versailles mirrors.

"Nothing but eternity could have appeared to him as a possible measure of his fame's duration":

How ironical - his name and fame has dwindled into (almost(thanks James for the revival) oblivion, whereas his contemporary, Menzel, lives on for ever.

James Gurney said...

Painter of Parks, I have a friend in Germany who helped me learn more about von Werner. He says that in 10 years he has only seen one work of his publicly exhibited. The Metropolitan Museum only has a small preliminary sketch by him:

The Painter of Parks said...

Thank you for the answer to my question James. You rock!

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

I think i must correct two things here:
1) I have read almost everything from Anton von Werner and i don't think that Emil Fuchs description " that nothing but eternity could have appeared to him as a possible measure of his fame's duration" is fair. Anton von Werner had strong opinions and was liberal in life, but conservativ in his art views. His writing shows an humble person who admired many other artists of his day and the past, but also a fierce fighter of modern art, which brought him many enemys. One, Friedrich Freiherr von Khaynach, has written a whole book in this tone about AvW.
2) "He says that in 10 years he has only seen one work of his publicly exhibited". That could be true, but it is not reflects the reality. I have seen many of his works in the last 10 years, most in Berlin (Alte Nationalgalerie, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlinersche Galerie, Jüdisches Museum), but also in Kunsthalle Karlsruhe or Landesgalerie Hannover for example. He is not forgotten in germany, only ignored in mainstream media.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, K.K.K., for the corrections. Let me say that I'm only quoting Fuchs, who studied with von Werner for a considerable time. When Fuchs says "nothing but eternity could have appeared to him as a possible measure of his fame's duration," I don't think he's disrespecting von Werner or saying that he was arrogant. On the contrary Fuchs is exceedingly respectful of the man he calls elsewhere in his memoir "his Excellency, Anton von Werner."

Reflecting back on his studies at the Berlin academy, Fuchs wrote: "As my two years' stay at the Academy in Berlin was drawing to a close, I looked back over my experiences and could not help feeling that I was progressing. Although art there doubtless moved in the good old channels which were emphasized by a Schaper and a von Werner, there was nevertheless a distinct current of fresh air and fresh ideas noticeable. It must be owned that to the more enlightened the Academy appeared stuffy and they left it. Personally, I felt otherwise. I had never looked upon it as other than those crutches by the help of which I might learn to walk. The thoroughness of the teaching appealed to me."

Fuchs explains that "during the Emperor William's reign, art was like soldiering, a matter of discipline. The highest form was the military picture or the monuments or memorials commemorating heroes of the Franco-Prussian war." Obviously that system of values was gone by 1925, not just for von Werner, but for people like Meissonier and Detaille.

On the second point, I'm glad to hear that several his works are on exhibit. Is there a good monograph on him or has there been a retrospective exhibition? Let's hope that his work will continue to be shown and appreciated.

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

Thank you for clarifying Fuchs thoughts. There was a major exhibition of his work in 1993 and in connection with it they published a very good monograph, 'Geschichte in Bildern', 480 pages, Hirmer Verlag.

Rich said...

I'm glad Werner hasn't fall`n into oblivion, thanks once more James.
I wouldn't even know about him, hadn't there been a book on Menzel, with Werner's Versaille-mirror painting depicted, which I happened to came across.
There it was written that Menzel well had appreciated Werner's painting:

In those very times "be appreciated" and "held in esteem" by Adolph von Menzel ....well, that's what I'd call an "accolade".
Which is more than 100 years ago - jeez, what would "Adolph" have to say about the artscene today? Would he find it verging on the obscene? (Like the very name Adolf, ha ha.) We can't say, we just don't know; even as we can't proclaim how artistic evaluations might look 100 years hence, in the year 2119;-)

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

By the way, the last picture, The arrival of... was, at that time, considered only as 'color study' for a large mural. I have seen this study in person and it is always fascinating, how good these studies are.

Rich said...

You mean that last picture with this well rendered Saarbrücken Bridge arrival was nothing but just a "color study"?

That brings things into perspective, IMO: How would Werner's final result have looked like?

Just fascinating.

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

Yes Rich.

The final painting isn't on display, but you can find an old photograph for example here:

It is, as we can assume, a little bit more finished in detail (not visible in this photograph) and we can find a few minor changes in composition.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Kunst Kommt Von Können. In the post, I've added the reproduction of the finished painting after the preliminary study. It's interesting to compare them.

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

One last footnote.

The picture was part of a cycle commissioned by the state.
Anton von Werner describes in his autobiography the annoyance he had with the art commission, which accused these sketches of lacking serious character.

For example, in the picture here, King William's arrival, there were, in there opinion, too many simple people depicted.
Left, e.g. a blacksmith, butcher or baker and on the right a city-known and popular maid with her basket.

Anton von Werner had, in preparing these images, many conversations with eyewitnesses, he studied the official files and painted many portrait studies. So he only partially accepted these presumptuous demands. Sadly for the maid, she had to retreat into the background.