[The following discussion comes from the author’s German Romantic Painting (1980). The original text illustrates the works to which it refers. — George P. Landow]

Part one of Goethe’s Faust, published in 1808 and immediately hailed as a major achievement of the new German literature, gave [Cornelius] just the opportunity he sought. The story, set in the sixteenth century, seemed to be both nationalist and revivalist in its sympathies. Like many other contemporaries, Cornelius was not at first aware that these elements were peripheral to the universal dimensions of the drama; these became fully clear only when the second part of the play was published at the end of Goethe’s life. For Cornelius the work provided the opportunity to display his recently acquired altdeutsch expertise. The seven drawings that he sent to Goethe through the agency of Sulpiz Boisserée in 1811 were above all intricate feats of penmanship. Full of flourishes and hatchings they reveal the impact of another publication of 1808, the lithographs by Nepomuk Strixner after the pen drawings made by Dürer in the prayer-book of the Emperor Maximilian. Even more than the technique, it was the inventive play of these drawings — the descendants of the drolleries of the illuminated manuscripts modulated by an Italianate decorativeness—that liberated in Cornelius a similar feeling for the grotesque.

Goethe’s reception of the works was full of the reservations that he habitually felt at the Gothic productions of the younger generation. He praised Cornelius’s inventiveness and handling of drama, as well as his absorption of the ‘mode of thought’ of the sixteenth century. Yet he offered at the same time a warning against too close an imitation of the cramped style of the old Germans. He recommended as an antidote the study of the Italians and, ironically, the Maximilian drawings, which he felt showed Dürer at his most “free, ingenious, great and beautiful.”

Cornelius, never a man to be intimidated, replied in kind, pointing out to Goethe that he himself had encouraged the tendency towards the old Germans through his poems. [177]


Vaughan, William. German Romantic Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Created 27 September 2016