Friedrich Overbeck helped lay the foundations for Pre-Raphaelitism and set the parameters for modern popular religious imagery. His work gave visual expression to the conviction that art and religion are interdependent. He challenged the value of academic training in the visual arts while insisting that art should address a broad public rather than an elite minority, and extolling the art of Raphael and his predecessors as the optimal model for nineteenth century artists.
Overbeck expressed his artistic philosophy in Triumph of Religion in the Arts, a painting unveiled, with the artist's own commentary, in 1841. Divided into heavenly and earthly registers reminiscent of Raphael's frescoes at the Stanza della Segnatura, the Triumph presents an earthly zone populated by approximately seventy figures, most of whom represent historical artists of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. They gather around a central fountain of art, which surges upward toward the heavenly realm. There, Solomon, David, St. Luke and St. John present sculpture, song, painting, and architecture to the Virgin and Child, who, as the font of poetry, sits amid supporting New and Old Testament hosts.
The conceptual framework of Overbeck's artistic credo had been set during his experience at the Academy in Vienna, where he studied under H. Füger in 1805. He was dissatisfied with the mechanical nature of the instruction, which he found to be devoid of “Heart, Soul, and Feeling.” Like Asmus Jakob Carstens a decade earlier, Overbeck was convinced that truth in art was dependent on ideas given form through artistic individuality, rather than on the mastery of academic conventions. Overbeck was supported in his rejection of academic practice by other students in Vienna, most notably Franz Pforr and Ludwig Vogel. In 1809 they joined three others to become the Lukasbund, a secessionist group that became the heart of the Nazarene movement.
In 1810 Overbeck traveled with Pforr, Vogel, and Franz Hottinger to Rome, where he was to remain for the rest of his career. The group enjoyed a kind of monastic seclusion reflective of their enthusiasm for Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder's Herzensergiessungen during a two-year residence in the secularized monastery of San Isidoro. Collective life drawing as well as compositional studies continued (although Overbeck refused to draw from the female nude for fear of corrupting his sensibilities). He began (Portrait of Franz Pforr, 1810-65), a fanciful celebration of the artists’ profound friendship. Pforr is seated at a symbolically laden window frame, through which is seen a Gothic interior with pious helpmate as well as a view in a medieval northern town. The linear clarity of the painting is rooted in the tradition of Carstens and John Flaxman, while the medieval exuberance of the details may be paralleled to the work of Caspar David Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The resounding calm of the painting is distinctive to Overbeck, however, and reveals his preoccupation with spiritual piety.
Pforr's death in 1812 marked a turning point within the Lukasbund and prompted Overbeck's conversion to Roman Catholicism the following year. Peter Cornelius joined the group in 1812, served as a powerful complement to Overbeck, and helped focus the Lukasbund's attention on public art within Germany's post-Napoleonic culture. As early as 1810, Overbeck had been drawn to the ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi concerning the potential of art to teach the common people. Cornelius believed this philosophy would be well-served by the genre of the fresco, which he considered an appropriately monumental and public medium, and in 1816-17 the two artists joined Franz Catel, Wilhelm Schadow, and Philipp Veit to produce the Casa Bartholdy frescoes. Overbeck's panels, Seven Lean Years and The Sale of Joseph, reflect his exploration of primitive prototypes, such as the Aegina Temple sculptures and the work of Perugino (Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci). When, in the wake of the Bartholdy commission, Overbeck agreed to execute frescoes on themes from Tasso's Jerusalem Liberata for the Casino Massimo (1818-27), his mature style coalesced around the early Roman work of Raphael.
Overbeck's active role in the Roman artistic community waned following his marriage in 1818 and the return of many of his contemporaries to Germany by 1820. His work coalesced stylistically, however, and in his Vittoria Caláoni (1821) and Italia und Germania (1810-28) he gave form to a female ideal that transcended sensuality. With his execution of The Vision of St. Francis of Assisi, he committed himself completely to religious art. Major compositions of his mature years appeared in Lübeck (The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, 1809-24, and Lamentation, 1839-45), Poznan (Spozalizio, 1828-36) and Cologne (The Assumption of the Virgin, 1829-54) in Germany; in Leeds, England (The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1847-51); and in other cities. Pope Pius IX commissioned Christ Evading His Pursuers 1848-57) for the Palazzo Quirnal. Finally, two late programs capture the breadth and monumentality of Overbeck's vision: the unexecuted Sieben Sacramente (Seven Sacraments) for the Orvieto Cathedral (tapestry version, 1861) and the fresco cycle for the cathedral in Djakovo (1865-67). Reproductive prints of all his major compositions were widely distributed, and they, along with his engraved Forty Scenes from the Gospels (1844), helped imprint his vision on the religious imagination of the century.
Criticisms of Overbeck's ideals were raised by the 1840s, when it became apparent that his work went against the grain of the materialism informing Biedermeier and realist painting. Yet throughout the century, Overbeck's position in German art history was secure. He and Cornelius were identified as the heirs to Carstens and as fathers of the “new German art” that dominated public and religious painting throughout Overbeck's lifetime.
Born on July 3, 1789, to Christian Adolf and Elisabeth Overbeck in Lübeck. Drawing instruction under N. Peroux in 1804. Following year Overbeck came to know A. Kestner and his collection of drawings after Italian masters. In January 1806 traveled to Hamburg, where he met J. H. W. Tischbein and Philipp Otto Runge, and then later in the year traveled to Vienna, where he enrolled at the Academy under F. H. Füger. He formed the antiacademic Lukasbund with Franz Hottinger, Franz Pforr, J. Sutter, Ludwig Vogel, and J. Wintergerst in 1809. With Hottinger, Pforr, and Vogel, departed the following year for Rome, residing briefly in the secularized monastery of San Isidoro. Converted to Roman Catholicism in 1813. Occupied a leading place within the Catholic faction of the Germanartists in Rome thereafter. In 1818 married AnnaSchiffenhuber-Hartl; their son Alfons was born the following year. Traveled briefly in Germany in 1831, 1855, and 1865. Otherwise remained in Rome, where his son died in 1840, and his wife in 1853. Awarded honorary membership in academies in Munich (1829), Rome (1831), Vienna (1836), Florence (1844), Berlin (1845), and Antwerp (1863). Died November 12, 1869, and was buried in San Bernardo alle Terme in Rome.
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