Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Friedrich Overbeck
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Convert and painter of religious subjects, b. at Lübeck, 3 July, 1789; d. at Rome, 12 November, 1869. Overbeck is one of the most fascinating figures in the realm of modern Christian art. He was the soul of that romantic school of painters who, under the name of "Nazarites", exerted great influence on the formation of the German religious art of the nineteenth century. When eighteen years old, Overbeck became a pupil at the Academy of Fine Arts at Vienna. After he had attained proficiency he quickly withdrew from the compulsion and formalism of the academy, and went with three friends to Italy and above all to Rome as the great centre for the exercise of art. In 1810 he made his home in the monastery of the Irish Franciscans at Rome, San Isidoro, which was then unoccupied. He was the first to recognize that the tradition of ecclesiastical art had been completely suspended by the Reformation and the iconoclastic outbreaks, and that later the stifling overgrowth of Humanism introduced elements into it, which had cast a mythological garb over the Catholic ideal of art. His work was, by the power of genius, to throw a bridge over the period of stagnation and depression that had lasted for three centuries. Overbeck lived to see the complete success of his titanic labours. At Rome the father of the "Nazarites", as perhaps he may now be called, was joined by the later masters, Cornelius, Schadow, and Philip Veit, and these men united together into a school. It was Overbeck's art and studies that brought him back to the Church, and the mystical power of his piety alone empowered him to produce his lofty creations. The series of frescoes of the history of Joseph in Egypt in the house called Casa Bartholdi, those illustrating Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered" in the villa of Prince Massimo, and above all that wonderful composition "The Miracle of Roses" in the Portiuncula chapel at Assisi, astonished the world by modern technic, completely independent grasp of the subject, and most of all by proper relation of the painting to the dominating sister art of architecture. Overbeck was not able personally to develop the ideal he had formed, the adornment of northern, especially German churches with frescoes, but his school, largely as represented by Eduard von Steinle, has partially carried out his wishes.
The influence of Overbeck's spirit was by no means limited to Germany. France, particularly, understood the graphic speech of this new religious art; Belgium, Poland, and Spain followed in the footsteps of the master at Rome. The reputation of the new leader of art was spread throughout all classes of society, largely by his smaller works, especially by his Biblical cartoons. His oil paintings are conspicuous for their qualities but are not numerous; the most noted of them, "The Triumph of Religion in the Arts", is the chief ornament of the Städel Gallery at Frankfort. If the work produced by Overbeck appears meagre, when contrasted with the amount put forth by artists who came after him, the reason is to be found in the subtility of his manner, owing to which he could execute masterly work, even in old age, as the wonderful cartoons of the "Seven Sacraments", and the sketches for the decoration of the cathedral of Diakovár, which were only used in part. Hostility to the art of Overbeck and his followers, the "Nazarite" school, did not fail to appear during Overbeck's lifetime, nor is it lacking now. Some say that the "Nazarites", most of all Overbeck, Veit, Führich, and Steinle, have introduced Italian art into Northern Europe, and have made German ecclesiastical art, which was stern and austere, shallow and insipidly sweet. Of the same opinion as these "orthodox" artists are the "moderns", who assert that the "Nazarite" canons of art are outstripped and antiquated. To these men, style, the canons, and dogmas of art are superfluous, stereotyped, and out-of-date. Overbeck and his companions have been justified by their extraordinary success as far as regards ecclesiastical art, which must always be a religious art. Their influence may be recognized also in the closely related art of architecture, at least as far as the Germanic people are concerned.
HOWITT, Friedrich Overbeck, sein Leben und Schaffen, ed. by BINDER (Freiburg, 1886); ATKINSON, J. F. Overbeck: a memoir (London, 1882).
C. M. Kaufmann.