Rudolf of Habsburg and the Priest.. Franz Pforr (1778-1812). 1810. Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 54.5 cm. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main. Click on image to enlarge it

According to William Vaughan, shortly after Pforr made friends with Overbeck he painted “his first fully archaic picture,” Count Rudolph of Hapsburg and the Priest, taking its theme from a poem by Schiller that depicts a famous incident in the life of Rudolph, the first Hapsburg “to be elected to the German monarchy. While out hunting the Count had come across a priest hindered by a river from reaching the house of a dying man to give him the last sacrament. Rudolph offers the priest his horse, and the act is later remembered to his advantage when he has achieved greatness.” The painter venerated Rudolph as someone who had who had worked for German unity but also respected the authority of the church.

Just as Schiller’s poem harks back to the simple form of the Ballad, so this picture has a naive directness in its presentation of the story. Pforr was typical of his generation in considering medieval painting to be an expression of popular culture. Like Wackenroder and Tieck he saw Dürer’s strength as having derived from his close connections with the people. At the same time as he collected Dürer engravings, he also acquired popular woodcut books from the sixteenth century and admired the examples of contemporary peasant art that Vogel had brought with him to Vienna from his native Zurich. In Rudolph of Hapsburg and the Priest the simple poses, clearly oudined shapes, flatly applied colours and lack of chiaroscuro have a primal directness that is if anything closer to folk art than to the painting of the late Middle Ages.

No revivalist painter had risked such artlessness before, and, indeed, it is hardly likely that one with a less innocent imagination would have been able to do so effectively. This picture stands apart from the main direction of modern primitivism, where the gaucheries of some naive artist are used to revive the sophisticated palate. The effect here is dependent upon a close identification with the tradition from which the simplicities have been drawn.

This painting appears as Figure 73 in Lionel Gossman’s Unwilling Moderns: The Nazarene Painters of the Nineteenth Century George P. Landow


Gossman, Lionel. Unwilling Moderns: The Nazarene Painters of the Nineteenth Century. Victorian Web [Complete text in the Victorian Web].

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

Last modified 27 September 2016