The New International Encyclopædia/Overbeck, Johann Friedrich
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Overbeck, Johann Friedrich
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OVERBECK, Johann Friedrich (1789-1869). A German historical painter, the leader of the revival of Christian art in the nineteenth century. He was born at Lübeck, July 4, 1789, received a careful education, and in 1806 went to Vienna to study at the Academy. His opposition to the pseudo-classic notions then prevailing at that institution resulted in his expulsion in 1810, in company with several like-minded fellow students. They proceeded to Rome, where they became known as the Nazarites, because of their artistic views. (See Pre-Raphaelites.) To Overbeck, the high priest of this creed, art was a religious question, and he held that “the true home of art is within the soul before the altar of the Church.” Becoming more and more absorbed in this ecclesiastic romanticism, he embraced the Catholic faith and dedicated his life to Christian art. As his part of a commission from the Prussian Consul Bartholdi to decorate a room in his house with frescoes illustrating “The History of Joseph,” Overbeck painted “Joseph Sold by His Brethren” and the “Seven Years of Famine.” The entire cycle was successfully transferred to the National Gallery in Berlin in 1887. Its success brought a new commission to decorate the Villa Massimi with scenes from Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso, of which Overbeck painted “Jerusalem Delivered” (completed by his devoted disciple Führich). Of his oil paintings of this period the New Pinakothek in Munich possesses three: “Italia and Germania” (1820). “Portrait of Vittoria Caldoni” (1822), and a “Holy Family” (1825). The latter, an inspired transcript of Raphaelesque forms, is one of Overbeck's most charming compositions. More important and on a larger scale is “Christ's Entry into Jerusalem,” painted intermittently from 1809 to 1824, and now in the Marienkirche at Lübeck. In this composition Flemish influence appears curiously blended with the Pre-Raphaelite, a healthy realistic element being added by the introduction of contemporary portraits of relations, fellow-artists, and friends.
Meanwhile a large school gathered around him, the influence of which extended throughout Europe. A sojourn at Perugia occasioned his finest and largest fresco, “The Vision of Saint Francis” (1830), in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi, suggestive, in its purity and rare charm, of the best Pre-Raphaelites. Among the fruits of the painter's first return to his native land in 1831 were “The Triumph of Religion in the Arts” (1831-40, Städel Institute, Frankfort), accompanied by a written explanation containing a confession of his art faith, and the “Assumption” (1846-55, Cologne Museum). The impressive “Pietà” (1846, Marienkirche, Lübeck) was the outgrowth of a father's grief over the death in 1840 of his only son, a promising lad of eighteen.
Overbeck's greatness is, however, to be sought not in his paintings, but in his drawings, the most noteworthy including “Christ Blessing Little Children,” “The Preaching of Saint John,” “Repose in Egypt,” “The Raising of Lazarus,” and especially the cycles of “The Gospels” (40 cartoons, 1843-52), “Via Crucis,” or “The Stations” (14 water-color drawings, 1857), and “The Seven Sacraments” (7 cartoons, 1861). Productive to the last, he died peacefully at Rome, November 12, 1869, and was buried in the Church of San Bernardo.
Overbeck's work cannot be judged by ordinary standards. His artistic creed, that the mental conception constitutes the chief merit of an art work, that outline or form is the direct vehicle of such idea, and that color and its accessories are subordinate elements, shows conclusively that he must not be viewed as a colorist. Yet in spite of its defects his art is vital in thought, form, and composition, and his works are undeniably the most perfect artistic manifestations of the great Catholic reaction dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Consult the biographies by Atkinson (London, 1882) and Howitt (Freiburg, 1886); also Valentine, in Dohme, Kunst und Künstler des 19. Jahrhunderts (Leipzig, 1883-85); Zahn, in Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst (ib., 1871); Pecht, in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, xxv. (ib., 1887); Portig, “Friedrich Overbeck und die religiöse Malerei der Neuzeit,” in Unsere Zeit (ib., 1887); and Rosenberg, Geschichte der modernen Kunst, ii. (ib., 1889).