German Life, Real and Imagined

Book Review

  • The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints, 1770–1850

  • Edited by John Ittmann with additional essays by Warren Breckman, Mitchell B. Frank, Cordula Grewe, Catriona MacLeod and F. Carlo Schmid
  • 412 pages, 325 illustrations
  • Published by Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2017
  • $65

It is a little-known fact that the Philadelphia Museum of Art owns 8,500 prints by 850 late 18th- and early 19th-century German, Austrian and Swiss artists. One of the many unique aspects of this collection is its historical and regional significance. The core 7,000 works were acquired between the 1850s and 1870s by John Smith Phillips, a Philadelphia businessman and founder of the Franklin Institute. Phillips bought most of the prints from Leipzig dealers, one of whom, Carl Gustav Boerner, had actually commissioned some of the art (Ludwig Richter’s 1830 cycle of Salzburg views). Phillips’s collection is the vestige of a time when Germany was revered in the United States as a land of preeminent cultural excellence, and Pennsylvania was a state largely populated by German immigrants. Given these origins it is therefore fitting that most of the contributing authors of the museum’s new publication, The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints, 1770–1850, are either associated with the city (Warren Breckman, Catriona MacLeod and Cordula Grewe are affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania) or the original Leipzig dealers (Carlo Schmid is the current director of C.G. Boerner in Düsseldorf).

This book, to which much care has been given in the design and the quality of illustrations, is the result of Philadelphia Museum of Art print curator John Ittmann’s love of the material. He first presented it in the 1992 show “Art and Nature: German Printmaking, 1770–1850” and more recently in the 2013 exhibition for which this publication serves as the belated catalogue [see Art in Print May–June 2014]. The expansive nature of the book, however, reflects the ambitions of a collection catalogue, comprising 24 essays by leading scholars, an annotated list of illustrations that includes the reference citations and provenance of the 325 works by 120 artists, a bibliography and an index of names. Brimming with factual information, the writing is accessible to a general audience, while the meticulously detailed research, evident in the endnotes (especially those by Ittmann) and catalogue list, will be of great use to print specialists as well as art historians who do not read German. Even authorities in the field will find abundant new material, since the book is filled with the names of unfamiliar artists (many of them reproductive printmakers), rare impressions and new attributions and identifications.1 Among the discoveries to be found, for example, are the charming etchings by Dresden printmaker Johann Christian Klengel of the villagers in Kesselsdorf, his hometown. Recorded on small copper plates he carried with him, they are candid sketches of daily peasant life that anticipate mid-19th-century Realism by over five decades.

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  1. See, for instance, Ittmann’s identification of the previously anonymous portrait by Johann Gotthard Müller of his friend Georg Friedrich Vischer, the Hohe Carlsschule professor and librarian. It is the only known impression of one of merely two etchings ever completed by the artist (Frank, 275, 280n19). []