Elegance, Drama and Nature

Georg Desmarées, The Artist with his Daughter Antonia, 1760

Canvas, 159 x 118 cm

© Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich


Elegance, Drama and Nature

Alte Pinakothek
West Wing


The presentation of 18th-century painting at the Alte Pinakothek consists above all of pictures by French and Venetian artists such as François Boucher, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo whose work was already much in demand throughout Europe during the artists’ lifetime. Paintings by Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Pater, meanwhile, testify to the influence of Antoine Watteau.

The extraordinary wealth and diversity of 18th-century European art, however, only becomes clear when we look beyond France and Venice. In the current collection presentation, rarely shown works by German and Dutch artists enter into an intriguing dialogue with paintings from France and Italy. 

The presentation focuses on three thematic areas that offer particularly telling insights into the conditions governing artistic production and the evolving discourse and cultural climate of the Age of Enlightenment: portraiture, especially self-portraits; Festivities and Themes of Love; city and landscape views. 

The sustained engagement with the idea of humankind’s rational and emotional competence, personal freedoms and the relationship to society, a new awareness of history, the rediscovery of the natural world and exploration of the laws of nature – all these aspects shaped the 18th century and are reflected in the selection of paintings shown here. As part of a collection accumulated over a long period of time, they vividly convey the parallelism of the numerous, sometimes contradictory approaches that characterised European 18th-century art.

Looking at the Self – The Painter as the Subject of Painting

Marie-Gabrielle Capet, 1808 Studio scene (Adélaïde Labille-Guiard portrays Joseph-Marie Vien), 1808 © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

The portraitists of the Rococo period responded to the grandeur of the Baroque with a more playful ideal of beauty marked by breezy elegance and grace. The style was shaped by French artists such as François Boucher. Among the important portraitists active in Germany was Swedish-born George Desmarées, painter to the electoral court in Munich from 1730, where he painted his older colleague Balthasar August Albrecht. Also from Sweden was Alexander Roslin, whose services were in demand throughout Europe and who worked in Bayreuth for a few years.  

The sensual exuberance of the Rococo style – which swept across Europe in the 1720s – was often disparaged as merely decorative or even frivolous and duly gave rise to a backlash in the form of the high-minded seriousness and heroism that characterised the Neoclassical school which emerged around 1760. Privileging moderation and harmony, Neoclassicism valued the qualities of drawing above those of colour, atmosphere and light effects. Early Neoclassicists include Pompeo Batoni, considered the inventor of the tourist portrait, and the Swiss artist Angelika Kaufmann, one of the few successful female painters in late 18th-century Rome.  

Whereas the influential Munich court painter Jacob Dorner the Elder drew on the Baroque style of the genre masters of the Dutch Golden Age, the French painter Marie-Gabrielle Capet achieved success with her miniature portraits. In her programmatic studio scene, she brings together several generations of important representatives of the Neoclassical school of painting. A tribute to the tradition of French academic artists, in terms of style, this ‘painted genealogy’ already foreshadows the art of the 19th century. 

Festivities and Themes of Love

Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695–1736) The Pleasures of Rural Life, c. 1735 © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

Themes of love and amorous scenes played a central role in 18th-century French painting. Antoine Watteau established the genre of the fête galante – a sort of elegant courtship party – in the second decade of the 18th century. Jean Baptiste Joseph Pater picked up on Watteau in his painting shown here: a group of well-dressed young sophisticates pursues love and conversation in an imaginary parkland setting. Probably inspired by French models, the painting by the Viennese painter Johann Georg Platzer also shows a group of elegant lovers disporting themselves outdoors. 

The Venetian artist Francesco Guardi, on the other hand, worked in the tradition of representing real festivities. In his painting Gala Concert, he focused on the shimmering atmosphere of the setting, which he rendered in his signature free brushwork. 

Marguerite Gérard’s depiction of a young couple nostalgically rereading old letters is a late example of a scene of lovers set indoors. The painting’s quiet domesticity sets it apart from the often clearly erotic pictures by the artist’s teacher and brother-in-law, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Gérard’s genre painting as well as the genre of the fête galante are unthinkable without the model of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting.  

In his pictures of the Weeping Girl and the Sleeping Girl, the Verona-born artist Pietro Antonio Rotari picked up on motifs that were popular in French Rococo painting. However, his handling of the romantic genre scenes in a polished, highly finished style that drew heavily on Baroque Classicism contrasts sharply with the loosely painted and brightly coloured works of artists such as François Boucher.

The Power of Nature – Idealised or Sublime

Philipp Hieronymus Brinckmann (1709-1760),The Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen with Elector Karl Theodor of the Palatinate and Entourage, c. 1759 © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose thinking influenced the Enlightenment throughout Europe, is credited with having formulated the rallying cry ‘Back to Nature’. With the rediscovery of nature as a source of knowledge and happiness, debates about culture ceased to focus solely on man’s rational actions and began to take account of his sensibility and sensory perception. This contributed to the surging popularity of landscape painting in the second half of the 18th century and paved the way for Romantic representations of nature. 

Hubert Robert’s paintings of ruins were imaginative meditations on the grandeur of antiquity. Like the popular pastoral landscape scenes, they encouraged the viewer to envision the long-lost original simplicity of a mythical Golden Age when man still lived in harmony with nature. 

These Arcadian idylls were complemented by paintings that were informed by the empirical study of nature and gave expression to the study and sensual experience of landscape gained during walks and journeys. The Mannheim court painter Philipp Hieronymus Brinckmann explored and celebrated the Swiss mountains. His painting of the Rhine Falls reflects the awed relish with which the enlightened individual viewed the overwhelming power of nature. Similarly, Claude Joseph Vernet’s picture of a storm – praised by Denis Diderot – is painted as a sublime natural phenomenon that transcends rational comprehension. In keeping with classical tradition, Vernet fused motifs studied from nature into idealised compositions. 

Guardi translated his impression of a regatta on the Canale della Giudecca into a visionary spectacle of light and water. And by amplifying his record of a real historical event – a fire in Venice – and transforming it more into a depiction of the epitome of the forces of nature, he came close to Vernet’s dramatic fiction of nocturnal conflagrations.