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German Immigrant Painters 6

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The Düsseldorf School

While during the first decades of the 19th Century the cultural climate in the United States had been decidedly anglophonic, a change made itself felt from about 1830 on.  Artists who had previously traveled for studies to London, now preferred Rome and Florence and during the 1840's and 50's Düsseldorf.  American painters flocked to this Rhineland art center in amazing numbers, regardless of whether they were of German origin or not.  Among them were many already or later well-known American painters, like Caleb Bingham, Eastman Johnson, Worthington Whittredge, Richard Caton Woodville, William S. Haseltine, James M. Hart, and William Morris Hunt.  Düsseldorf's art academy, under the brilliant directorship of Wilhelm von Schadow, had acquired an international fame.  The so-called "Düsseldorf style" became known for its excellence in draftsmanship, its dramatic composition, and its sometimes-theatrical light effects that satisfied the prevailing taste for sentimental naturalism.  In addition, the heavy mid-century German immigration may have played a part in promoting a greater interest in and appreciation of German culture in America

The central figure of the American artist community in Düsseldorf was Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868), a painter then greatly renowned for his drawing talent and his historical-allegorical compositions.  Leutze was born in southern Germany and came to America at the age of fifteen.  In 1840, at the age of 24, and with already seven years experience as a painter, he traveled back to Germany to study in Düsseldorf.  Although he made his home there fore almost 20 years, he always considered himself an American.  It seems that Leutze, who only experienced a fragmented Germany saw in the United States the realization of his dream of a universal fatherland as it had existed in the Middle Ages, a vision deep seated in the mind of many German idealists of the time.  His artist friends correctly recognized Leutze as a prophetic rather than a retrospective genius.  Therefore, his historical compositions should not be seen as reconstruction of past events, but as a symbolic projection of a heroic spirit.  In his paintings, Leutze glorified American history with great insistence and genuine enthusiasm.  In 1848, while residing in Düsseldorf, he painted the colossal Washington Crossing the Delaware with members of the American artist colony posing as his models.  After a studio fire damaged the original canvas, Leutze painted a copy in 1851. Only when Congress commissioned him in 1860 to paint the large mural Westward the Course of the Empire for the House of Representatives, did Leutze come to Washington.  He then remained in the United States until his death.  Although Leutze never held a formal teaching position, his work and personality exerted such a powerful influence on the artistic community at Düsseldorf and in the United States that no one was able to replace him.

The patriotic spirit, as was evident in the paintings of Leutze, was a natural outgrowth of Romanticism.  Other artists also produced portraits of national leaders and members of the government.  Charles Fenderich (1805-1887) and Henry Ulke (1821-1910) specialized in portraits of political personalities.  Christian Schüssele painted Washington Irving and his Literary Friends, expressing the pride Americans felt for their rich intellectual growth.

Often more theatrical than Leutze's paintings, was the large canvases of Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878), another German immigrant painter with Düsseldorf schooling.  After a short try in New York City, Nahl together with his brother Arthur (1820-1889) (also a painter) moved to California in 1850.  During the Gold Rush they worked for a few months in the fields before they established their art studio in San Francisco.  Nahl's extravagantly large, highly animated scenes of early California life have been called the ancestors of Hollywood spectaculars.  Admittedly, in many of Nahl's large compositions, people behave in a slightly exaggerated manner.  They give the impression of playing a part instead of living it.  Others of Nahl's paintings, like Weighing the Gold convey very naturally and convincingly an actual incident, which the painter may have personally observed as a gold miner.  Although Nahl's large paintings have an undeniable Düsseldorf air about them, they count as some of the best and most important picture documents of early West Coast history.  Later the two Nahl brothers worked mostly as photographers and commercial artists; Arthur eventually designed the California State seal.

Rivaling Charles Nahl in professional competence while also working in San Francisco during the third quarter of the 19th Century was William Hahn (1829-1887).  Hahn had studied at Dresden Academy and in Düsseldorf before immigrating to America.  After a short working period in New York, he moved to the West Coast in 1860.  He established himself in San Francisco as a painter of landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, and genre work, and he proved to be good in all of these areas.  But it was in his genre scenes that he produced his best and most interesting pictures.  They depict with striking immediacy the turmoil of a city, which, since the Gold Rush days had experienced an explosive growth and an inrush of a variety of people of many different races, classes and cultures.

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