The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/Fine Arts in Bohemia (2)
After the battle of the White Mountain the Czech artists became dispersed throughout Europe, just as had happened to the precious art collections of Prague. There is one name among them which enjoys world-wide fame. It is Hollar, whose engravings are the pride of all great museums and art collections. The Prague Rudolfinum has a cabinet of Hollar’s works, and this “Hollareum” has now 1,500 numbers, that is to say over a half of his engravings. Before the war the executive commission of the Bohemian Diet appropriated each year a certain sum for the completion of this collection.
Václav Hollar (Holár) of Prácheň, was born in Prague in 1607. A memorial tablet on house No. 1192 in Soukenická Ulice (Clothmakers’ Street) identifies the place of his birth. Although he was a sincere Czech and left his native land for the sake of religion, the Germans do not hesitate to claim him for their compatriot. German monographs on the copper engraver’s art make him a German. See for instance “Der Kupferstich” by Prof. Dr. Hans W. Singer (Leipzig, Velhagen & Klasing, 1904), where on page 56 we read: “Hollar was the only German graphic artist of the seventeenth century of any importance. His work will hold its own next to the work of the Holland and French artists of that day.” Hollar’s life is one of great tragedy. The son of wealthy parents, he was intended for the profession of lawyer. But when after the emperor’s victory his family lost everything, drawing, which had heretofore been young Hollar’s recreation, became the means whereby he earned his living. But his rich talent did not make him rich. He migrated from one country to another, first to Frankfurt in Germany ,then to London; when the English Revolution broke out, he fled to Flanders, then returned to England. Every time his fortunes began to mend, some catastrophe laid him low again; the plague took all his relatives, the great fire of 1668 consumed all his possessions. He worked with a feverish zeal, but the English printsellers took advantage of him, and he died in London in 1677 in the presence of persecuting creditors. The hardships and sufferings cast heavy shadows on all of Hollar’s work. How splendidly would his talent have shined under better circumstances. But though privations kept down the flight of his imagination and gave many of his plates the impression of a struggle for bread, they also increased his industry and fed his determination not to give in to evil fortune or deteriorate from an artist into an artisan. He is one of the great masters of his period with a complete control of the technique of his difficult art. His etchings number about 2,740. Among them are drawings of simple beauty, such as his views of Bohemia, Rhineland, Holland and England; again perfect representations of muffs, shells, butterflies, the acme of the engraver’s technique. His etchings have also a considerable value for the history of culture; under this heading belong some of his famous views of cities, especially the beautiful view of Prague with the touching inscription: “Wenceslaus Hollar a Lewengruen et Bareyt hanc Regni Bohemiae Metropolim, Patriam suam, ex monte Sti. Laurentii A. 1636 exactissime delineavit et aqua forti in hac forma aeri insculpsit Antwerpiae A. 1649”, in English: “Václav Hollar of Loewengruen and Bareyt depicted most exactly this metropolis of the Bohemian kingdom, his native land, from the mount of St. Lawrence in 1636, and in this form etched into copper at Antwerp in 1649”. One can feel how love shook his hand, when he wrote the words Patriam Meam. Another engraving of great interest is his Aula Veneris, published in London in 1644, showing one hundred women’s costumes. The title page states “Wenceslaus Hollar Bohemus”, the best proof of his nationality, for if Hollar had considered himself to be a German, he would not have used such a designation of himself on the title page.
Artists that remained in Bohemia had to return into the bosom of the Catholic Church that won the land together with the Emperor at the White Mountain. Of these men the greatest was Karel Škréta Sotnovský of Zázvořice. He was born in Prague in 1604 and died there in 1674. His mother who would not deny her faith left the country in 1627 to go into exile. Her son who studied painting remained in Prague and conformed to the Catholic Church. His artistic training was obtained in Italy, whence he came back as an artist of great merit. In Bohemia he introduced a new era in painting, and his numerous pictures include the best that was done at that period any where in Europe outside of Italy. Many of his altar pieces are in the Prague churches; in the Týn church is the Annunciation of Virgin Mary, possibly his best work; in the same church is his St. Luke, who according to tradition bears the painter’s likeness, while the Virgin Mary here preserves the features of Škréta’s wife. Four of his paintings are in the church of St. Thomas; one, Christ on the Cross, in the church of St. Nicholas; another famous one, Mary Magdalen, in St. Peter’s church, while many smaller towns of Bohemia, like Bechyně, Louny, Mělník, Strakonice, etc., as well as picture galleries, have examples of Škréta’s genius.
It is true, though, that Škréta introduced an important change into the art of Bohemia, namely, a departure from the Slav foundation and the imitation of the Bolognese and Neapolitan schools, while the work of his successors marks the period of southern barocco in Bohemia.
The first half of the eighteenth century brought forward a number of great names, men who made Bohemian barocco famous. A great change had come over the country. At this period, sketched in such a masterly manner by Jirásek in his “Temno” (Darkness), the nobility and clergy were the nation; the lower classes did not count, their taste approved everything that the upper classes favored, and so the luxury and pomp of the barocco were in style. The power of the sovereign, of the church and of the nobility was at its highest. A revolution was inevitable and forces preparing it were already busy, but did not yet manifest themselves. The nobility of Bohemia was foreign nobility, German, Walloon, Spanish, Italian; their ancestors were military adventurers to whom Emperor Ferdinand granted confiscated estates of the Czech rebels. The men who owned the soil of Bohemia in the first part of the eighteenth century were eager to satisfy their vanity and impress with their lordly magnificence their peasant subjects. The Catholic Church was closely allied to the feudal nobles. The influence of the Church was wielded principally by the Jesuits, and barocco was commonly known as the “Jesuit style”. The Jesuits looked upon the bigness and pomp of their ecclesiastical structures as eloquent evidence of their victory over the heretics; besides, barocco agreed with the easy regimen extended to all who were obedient sons of the Church. The outside alone mattered; self-denial was not demanded, and the Church put the stamp of approval upon the pleasures of life. This attitude manifests itself in painting and statuary by the noble female figures that are found in so many over-decorated churches. A great period of al fresco paintings had come upon Bohemia; wide-spread ceilings and walls of the churches are covered with religious scenes. The greatest of the painters in this line was Rainer who was related to Tiepoli’s school.
Václav Vavřinec Rainer was born in Prague in 1686, and from 1720 he devoted his gifts entirely to fresco painting. In Prague his best work can be seen in the copula of the church of the Order of the Cross, on the vaults of the Dominican church (The War of the Catholic Church against the Infidels) , in the Czernin palace (The Battle of the Titans), etc. These splendid paintings, high above the visitor’s head, still compel our admiration. Rainer has also done many altar paintings, in St. Havel’s church, in the Dominican church—where the artist was buried in 1743—in St. James’, which has Rainer’s last work, a tremendous painting behind the altar in a wide barocco frame, for which Rainer received 1,200 gulden.
Peter Jan Brandl (1668–1735) is the second painter of the period. His pictures are also scattered through the Prague churches and in many churches and convents in the country towns. He revenged himself upon the citizens of Kolín, when they refused to pay the agreed price for a painting of St. Bartholomew. Brandl gave the saint his own likeness, while the cruel men who tortured the saint were made to look like the councilmen of Kolín.
The great masters among the sculptors were John Ferdinand Prokoff (Brokov, Brokoff), and Matthew Braun. The Brokoff family hailed from Slovakland; the father, himself a sculptor, came to Prague in 1675. He was of Lutheran religion, but in Bohemia he conformed to the Catholic Church. Brokoff (1688–1731), created several groups on the Charles bridge, such as St. Kajetán, founder of the Theatine Order, further a group ordered for the bridge by Count Fr. Jos Thun in memory of the passing of the plague and the conclusion of peace after the wars of the Spanish succession. In this group is St.John of Matha and St. Felix of the Trinitarian Order; as this order was founded for the purpose of buying Christians from Turkish slavery, the lower part of the group represents a jail guarded by a dog and a Turk, which Turk is popularly known in Prague as the Turk from the Bridge. Other statues of saints, made by Brokoff for the bridge, are St. Ivan, St. Vincent and St. Procopius, and St. Francis Xaverius. This last statue of the apostle of India was swept away by the flood of September 4, 1890. Braun’s most splendid memorial on the Charles bridge is the “Dream of St. Luitgard”, a wonderful group of statuary carrying out a painting by Brandl, further a figure of St. Ivo, patron saint of lawyers, and in this case the gift of the law faculty of the Prague University. We must not forget to mention here also Brokoff’s gorgeous caryatids supporting the balcony of the Morzin palace in Prague, a bust of Day and Night and the Four Parts of the World, on the same palace, and the sarcophagus of Count Vratislav of Mitrovice in the St. James church.
In architecture the Prague barocco is connected with the immortal name of Kilian Jan Dienzenhofer, who built the St. Nicholas church on the Small Side of Prague, the principal monument of the barocco style in all Austria. The ornamental steeple of this church, of flowing virginal lines, and the majestically beautiful cupola are the pride of Prague. Our present-day graphic artists, Šimon, Stretti, Vondrouš, and others, in their etchings find ever new poetical beauty in the lines of this wonderful structure.
Dienzenhofer’s death in 1752 closes the period of Bohemian barocco, and a decay in art sets in lasting for nearly one hundred years.