In Germany the age was favorable neither to science nor to art. War, current or expected, consumed enthusiasm, emotion, and wealth. Private patronage of art was rare and timid. Public galleries at Leipzig, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and especially Dresden and Berlin, were displaying masterpieces, but Napoleon siphoned them to the Louvre.
Nevertheless, German art produced some memorable works amid the turmoil. While Paris was dancing with chaos Berlin boldly raised the Brandenburg Gate. Karl Gotthard Langhans (1732–1808) designed it in fluted Doric columns and grave pediment as if to announce the death of baroque and rococo; but chiefly the stately structure proclaimed the might of the Hohenzollerns, and their resolve that no enemy should enter Berlin. Napoleon entered in 1806, the Russians in 1945.
Sculpture fared well. It is an essentially classic art, depending on line and (since antiquity) avoiding color; alien to its spirit were baroque irregularity and rococo playfulness. Johann von Dannecker chiseled a Sappho, and Catullus’ Girl with the Bird, for the Stuttgart Museum, an Ariadne for the Bethmann Museum in Frankfurt, and a famous bust of Schiller for the library at Weimar. Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764–1850), after studying with Canova in Rome, returned to his native Berlin and, in 1793, caught the attention of the capital by placing, atop the Brandenburg Gate, a carved Quadriga of four horses guided by a Winged Victory in a Roman chariot. For Stettin he carved a marble figure of Frederick the Great standing in martial array and burning enemies with his eyes, but with two thick tomes at his feet to attest his work as an author; his flute was forgotten. Tenderer is the pair of Princesses Luise and Friederike (1797), half drowned in drapery but moving quietly, arm in arm, to exaltation and grief. The Queen inspired artists by her beauty, her passionate patriotism, and her death. Heinrich Gentz (1766–1811) dedicated to her a somber mausoleum at Charlottenburg, and for that resting place Christian Rauch (1777–1857) carved for her a tomb worthy of her body and soul.
German painting was still suffering from the anemia of neoclassicism trying to live on the ashes of Herculaneum and Pompeii, the treatises of Lessing and Winckelmann, the pale faces of Mengs and David, and the Roman reveries of Angelica Kauffmann and countless Tischbeins. But that imported decoloration had no nourishing roots in German history or character; German painters of this age shrugged off neoclassicism, went back to Christianity, back beyond the Reformation and its hostility or indifference to art, and—long before the English Pre-Raphaelites—listened to voices like Wilhelm Wackenroder and Friedrich Schlegel calling to them to go behind Raphael to the medieval art that had painted, carved, and composed in the simplicity and happiness of unquestioning faith. So rose the school of painters known as the Nazarenes.
Its leader was Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789–1869). Born in Lübeck, he carried with him through eighty years the sturdy seriousness of the old merchant families, and the pervasive mists coming in from the Baltic Sea. Sent to Vienna to study art, he found no nourishment in the neoclassicism fed to him there. In 1809 he and his friend Franz Pforr founded the “Lucan [St. Luke’s] Brotherhood,” pledged to the revitalization of art by dedicating it to renewed faith as it had existed in the days of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). In 1819 they migrated to Rome, seeking to study Perugino and other fifteenth-century painters. They were joined in 1811 by Peter von Cornelius (1783–1867), and later by Philipp Veit, Wilhelm von Schadow-Godenhaus, and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.
They lived like vegetarian saints in the deserted Monastery of San Isidoro on Monte Pincio. “We led a truly monastic life,” Overbeck later recalled. “In the morning we worked together; at midday we took turns to cook our dinner, which was composed of nothing but soup and a pudding, or some tasty vegetable.” They took turns in posing for each other. They passed by St. Peter’s as containing too much “pagan” art, and went rather to old churches, and to the cloisters of St. John Lateran and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They traveled to Orvieto to study Signorelli, to Sienna for Duccio and Simone Martini, and above all to Florence and Fiesole for Fra Angelico.
They resolved to avoid portraiture, or any painting for adornment’s sake, and to restore the pre-Raphael purpose of painting as an encouragement of Christian piety and a patriotism bound up with the Christian creed.
Their special opportunity came in 1816, when the Prussian consul in Rome, J. S. Bartholdy, commissioned them to decorate his villa with frescoes on the story of Joseph and his brethren. The “Nazarenes” had mourned the replacement of frescoes with painting on canvas with oil; now they studied chemistry to make receptive surfaces for enduring colors; and they so far succeeded that their frescoes, removed from Rome and installed in the Berlin National Gallery, took rank among the proudest possessions of the Prussian capital. But old Goethe, hearing of these ecstasies, condemned them as imitations of fourteenth-century Italian styles, just as the neoclassicists imitated pagan art. The Nazarenes ignored that criticism, but quietly left the scene as science, scholarship, and philosophy slowly eroded the ancient faith.