Carl Philipp Fohr. Caffè Greco. 1818. Pencil sketch. Courtesy of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Kupferstichkabinett.

The following discussion is note 118 to the author’s Unwilling Moderns: The Nazarene Painters of the Nineteenth Century.

As Felix Mendelssohn wrote in 1830,

"I hardly ever go there [i.e., to the Caffè Greco], for I dread both them [i.e. the Nazarene artists] and their favorite place of resort. It is a small dark room, about twenty-five feet wide, where you may smoke on one side but not on the other. They sit round it on benches, with their wide-brimmed hats on their heads and huge mastiffs beside them; their throats and cheeks and their entire faces sprout hair, and they puff fearful clouds of smoke (on one side of the room only) and hurl abuse at one another, while the mastiffs see to it that vermin will be well spread around. A suit or tie would be quite an innovation here. Spectacles conceal any part of the face left visible by the beard. And so they drink their coffee and talk of Titian and Pordenone as if the latter were sitting next to them and wearing beards and storm hats like theirs."[Reisebriefe an die Familie, 11 December 1830; English trans. in Wilfrid Blunt, On Wings of Song: A Biography of Felix Mendelssohn (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), p. 128.]

Though he repeats the usual judgments of the critics—the letter continues:  "Moreover they paint such sickly Madonnas, such feeble saints, and such milksop heroes that I long to have a go at them"—Mendelssohn does appear to have distinguished between the "hangers-on of the movement" and "the more distinguished Nazarenes such as Cornelius, Koch and Overbeck," whose studios he did not fail to visit (Blunt 128).

The painter Alfred Rethel gave a similar unflattering account of the German artists' colony in Rome in a letter to his mother, written some time in fall 1844, and reproduced in Wolfgang Müller von Königswinter, Alfred Rethel: Blätter der Erinnerung (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1861), pp. 127–28. Over 500 artists were then active in Rome, Rethel recounted—

"ohne Dilettanten" —without an art-loving public to support them. The vast majority "huldigt der modernen Kunst und speculirt demnach auf den Fremden und mit Glück, ist aber bei diesem Manöver so verachtungswürdig, so aller Würde bar, und leider stehen da die Deutschen obenan, dass es ein Jammer ist. Wie ihr Sinn, so ihr Machwerk; raisonnirt, schlecht gemacht, gelobhudelt, kritisirt wird untereinander, wie vielleicht beim Thurmbau zu Babel. Im Gegensatz zu diesen, ganz extrem sind diejenigen, so der rechten Kunst, der religiösen oder historischen, anzuhangen vorgeben, sind aber nicht viel besser, stellen sich auf einen ungeheuern moralischen Kothurn, sind bis obenan mit Gehässigkeit…vollgestopft, leidenschaftlich in ihrem Benehmen und benehmen sich wirklich lächerlich.…

[Return to Unwilling Moderns]

15 August 2016