Inscribed: W. d Iten Februar, Wilhelm Völcker Don Juan ; Ludwig Dörr, W den 30sten J. ; Platzburschen
Pen and ink on paper
18.8 x 19.5 cm. (7 ½ x 7 ¾ in.)
Colin Clark, London, from 1978 until 2020.
S. Maison, Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern. Drawings and Watercolours, London 1978, cat. no. 18.
London, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern. Drawings and Watercolours, 24 November to 22 December 1978.
Drawn by Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern, an aristocratic military officer in the Russian army, who lost his right arm in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, this remarkable double portrait was last seen publicly in 1978, at Hazlitt’s exhibition on the artist. A small triumph in itself, the exhibition united thirty seven graphic works by Reutern, many of which are now in leading institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Morgan Library and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Dating to the mid-1820s, the sheet is exceptional for its rarity, quality, striking aesthetic and condition, as well as for the insight it gives into Reutern’s interests and personality.
Fig. 1, Theodor Hildebrant, Gerhardt
Wilhelm von Reutern, 1838, oil on canvas,
The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Reutern was born in 1794 in Livonia, on one of his father’s six estates, to a Baltic-German noble family with roots in Saxony. Livonia, comprising the modern states of Latvia and Estonia, was then under Russian influence and control, and Reutern was sent to St.Petersburg for schooling, before entering Dorpat University at the age of fifteen to study military science. Here he was taught the basics of painting and drawing by the watercolourist and etcher Carl August Senff. Reutern joined the Russian army in 1811, initially serving under his elder brother Christophe, before quickly advancing through the ranks to become a lieutenant. In 1813, at the age of nineteen, Reutern was badly wounded in the right shoulder at the Battle of Leipzig, fighting against French Napoleonic forces. Amputation was deemed necessary and, within a few months, ‘he began, with characteristic determination, to teach himself to draw with his left hand’.
Fig. 2, Gerhard Wilhelm von Reutern, Portrait
of the Postiillion Johann Heinrich Matheis,
c.1825-28, pen and ink on paper, 19.7 x 13.1 cm,
Metropolitan Museum, New York
In 1814, after a short period convalescing in Baden Baden and Bruschel, where he met both Goethe and Tsar Alexander I respectively, Reutern made his first visit to Willingshausen to see his brother’s parents-in-law, the Schwerztell family. Here he met Charlotte von Schwertzell, whom he would marry six years later. As aide-de-campe to General Barclay de Tolly, Reutern travelled from Warsaw to Paris in March 1815, as part of the occupying army, and there had his first encounter with the great masters in his frequent visits to the Louvre. An even greater turning point in Reutern’s life occurred on his return to Germany later in the year, where he met Goethe for the second time. The poet ‘awakened in his young visitor deep feelings for nature’ and opened his eyes to ‘his true vocation, that of an artist’. Several more meetings between them were to occur over the years, and the two friends remained in close contact up until Goethe’s death in 1832, with the poet writing of Reutern ‘Nature has given him a splendid talent, and art and nature have formed him’.
A pension from the Russian government and the inheritance of a family estate called Ayasch gave Reutern enough of an income to resign from the army in 1819, at the age of twenty-five. After a brief trip to Italy, he married Charlotte in 1820 and for a time led the life of a gentleman farmer on his estate, drawing assiduously. Ill-health, due to the severe climate, forced Reutern to sell the estate, moving with his wife and three young children to Berne in 1824, where he worked with the landscape painter Gabriel Lory. Leaving Switzerland, the family settled more permanently in the town of Willingshausen, though made trips to Rome and Naples in 1825. A decisive influence on Reutern at this time was the painter Ludwig Emil Grimm, younger sibling to the literary Grimm brothers, who was invited to Willingshausen between 1826 and 1828 by Reutern in order to instruct him in the art of portrait drawing, thereby setting up the oldest artist’s colony in Europe, a few years before the Barbizon colony was founded in Fontainebleau in 1830. The two artists roamed the fields and forests around the village looking for picturesque subjects to draw and were particularly interested in the appearance and personality of the villagers themselves.
Reutern continued to suffer ailments and moved frequently: a bout of cholera in 1831 led the artist to convalesce in the Baltic for two years, and an eye disease in 1833-34 caused him to largely give up drawing in favour of painting. The family moved to Düsseldorf in 1835 and two years later Reutern was appointed court painter to the Russian Imperial family, ensuring financial security for the remainder of his life. In 1844 the family moved once again, to Frankfurt am Main, where Reutern would spend the next twenty-one years until his death in 1865. These two decades, a time when the artist focussed his energies on oil painting, coincided with personal difficulties, including the deaths of his wife and three of his seven children. His work was increasingly occupied with Biblical themes, reflecting the steadfastness of his religious beliefs upon which he had come to rely in the face of these personal sorrows. He was buried in Frankfurt, alongside his right arm which was disinterred for the occasion from a miniature coffin in Leipzig.
Reutern’s double portrait would have been executed between 1825 and 1828 when the artist was settled in Willingshausen. The initial ‘W’ inscribed before each date refers to the village, and appears on several other drawings from this time. Wilhelm Völcker, on the left and seen at three-quarters, was depicted on 1st February and Ludwig Dörr, drawn from the back, was portrayed a couple of days before on 30th January. His left shoulder obscures Völcker’s right, further confirming the notion that he was drawn first. Left-handed, Reutern likely felt more comfortable working from left to right. Reutern probably always envisaged this as a double portrait, leaving enough room on the left-hand side to balance the composition with the addition of Völcker. Whatever the case, with Völcker looking out sideways and Dörr seen from an unusual and striking angle, the image has a very different feel to Reutern’s other known double portrait from the period, that of Anne Lies Stamm and Anne Kathring, even though this was also completed over two separate sittings (fig. 3).
Fig. 3, Gerhard Wilhelm von Reutern, Anne Lies Stamm and Anne Kathring,
c.1825-28, pen and ink on paper, 15.6 x 21.6 cm, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
The two young men, probably aged around twenty, were Platzburschen, as Reutern’s inscription helpfully tells us. Platzburschen were youths chosen by other young men in the village to lead the village dance. They wore ribbons and flowers, and their duties included arranging the order of dancing and keeping the accounts. Reutern often included inscriptions explaining the profession and roles of the villagers, and we therefore have portraits of the coachman, the night-watchman and a farmer, among others. The artist also on occasion inscribed a humorous nickname. Völcker, with his striking good looks, is called ‘Don Juan’, for example, after the fictional libertine who devoted most of his life to seduction. In a second portrait of Dörr, from the 29th January, the young Platzburschen wears a fur-trimmed cap and looks out seriously; here Reutern has named him ‘Der Philosoph’(fig. 4). His luscious locks tumble out from under the edge of the cap. Clearly Reutern felt they merited their own separate portrait, resulting in the present work.
Reutern’s skill as a draughtsman is evident throughout, with the artist using the pen more sparingly for the men’s jackets, building up the detail in the faces and hair, leading the viewer’s eye immediately to these focal points. This is typical of all his pen and ink portraits, a media which leaves little room for error. As a group, these village portraits are immensely important, giving a rare insight into the lives and images of the working population of a small German settlement at the start of the second quarter of the 19th century.
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