The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/Fine Arts in Bohemia (3)

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3078252The Bohemian Review, volume 1, no. 11–12 — Fine Arts in Bohemia (3)1917Jaroslav Egon Salaba-Vojan

Fine Arts in Bohemia.


By Dr. J. E. S. Vojan.

The Bohemian, or rather the Prague barocco period closes in the middle of the eighteenth century. Of the great artists who created this epoch Brandl died in 1738, Rainer 1743, Brokof 1731, Braun 1737, Dienzenhofer 1752; after that fine arts in Bohemia rapidly declined. The causes were political. The two principal supporters of art were the church and the nobility. During the reign of Maria Theresa and Joseph II the state greatly increased its power at the expense of the other two elements. The great territorial nobles became less important than the bureaucrats. Secularization of many churches and convents, carried out by Joseph, deprived the painters and sculptors of regular and wealthy patrons, while the nobles gravitated more and more to Vienna to be in attendance at the imperial court, the center of all fashion and power. The less important country gentlemen, scared by the aggressive accents of the French revolution and the increase of democratic tendencies, vegetated upon their estates and abandoned all inclination to patronize art. Then came the dark days of Napoleonic wars. First the ragged armies of revolutionary France, inspired by the Marseillaise, smashed the reputations of the most famous Austrian generals, and then appeared the scarlet star of Bonaparte. The laughing days of rococo were over; guitars played by great nobles and songs of high born shepherdesses were silenced, as every day brought evil reports from the battlefields.

As these great events were taking place, Prague lost its bustling life, squares and streets were empty, the old world was in death throes, and the new world had not yet taken shape. The third new estate, the estate of citizens, was in the process of creation, but some decades elapsed before it was able to undertake the nurture of art.

We come here to an unexpected event. At the very end of the century, in 1796, there was founded the “Society of Patriotic Friends of Art in Prague.” Eight noblemen united to “elevate the decadent artistic taste, to stop further export of works of art still remaining in the country and to establish a picture gallery and school of art.” These men, were not, of course, interested in the liberation of Czech art from slavery to foreign schools, a state of affairs existing since the days of barocco, nor did they intend to cultivate the fertile home soil so that it might give growth to a vigorous, genuinely Bohemian art. Their motives were altogether educational, humanitarian and in the general interest of higher civilization. The founders desired to give a tone to the taste of the burgher classes and to raise new generations of competent artists. At the head of the society was Count Franttišek Šternberk. A public art gallery was organized out of works donated and loaned, and in 1800 a school of art was founded under the pretentious name of the Painters’ Academy. Both institutions are still in existence. The gallery is now in the Rudolfinum, a beautiful home of art erected be tween the years 1876 and 1886 by the Bohemian Savings Bank at a cost of $800,000 in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary. The Painters’ Academy, made a state institution in 1885, has been housed in a splendid building above the Stromovka Park in 1902.

The first directors of the Academy were not Bohemian and they did not lead their pupils to Bohemian art. The gifted scholars were sent to Rome to study, and so their paintings had an international character. The school produced paintings, but true enthusiasm, the sacred fire, were lacking. Those early days can show no great painter. The first director ,and at first the only profesor, was a protege of the prince-bishops of Passau, Josef Bergler; twenty-nine years of his life spent in Bohemia brought no lasting results for true art, but his contemporaries showered praise upon him.

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century František Mánes, a journeyman miller, came to Prague from Radnice near Rokycany. His biblical name gave rise later to a legend that his family was of Holland origin, but no proofs of this have been found. Two sons of František Mánes and his wife Dorothy became painters: Antonín made a name for himself as a painter of landscapes, Václav as a painter of historical scenes. Both impressed their individuality on the Academy. Václav was for a time director, after Waldherr, Bergler’s successor. Antonín was professor of landscape painting. The latter had a son, named Joseph, born May 12, 1820, whom fate selected for the founder of modern Bohemian painting.

Little Joseph grew up in an atmosphere of art. He saw father and uncle busy drawing, painting, engraving and lithographing: the talk at home turned on art, and friends who called at the Mánes home were all artists. As early as 1835 Joseph was enrolled in the Academy. His education was caried on in German, for at that time everything in Prague was German and in the homes of better class Czech conversation was an exception up to the year 1848. This fact alone proves what a gigantic work was done by the patriots who awakened the Czech nation to a new life. And yet the citizens of Prague were in a sense patriotic Bohemians, for all of them, Czechs and Germans, looked upon Bohemia as their fatherland and were proud of its noble history. Of course all work tending to strengthen the national consciousness had to be done under an innocent guise. Metternich’s absolutism suppressed with a heavy hand anything savoring of freedom. Upon Metternich’s fall in 1848 the new Bohemian patriotism tok Prague as if by storm, but at the same time the Germans ceased to look upon themselves as citizens of Bohemia and took up a hostile attitude toward everything Czech. But let us return for a moment to the thirties.

In 1837 occurred the first significant event in Mánes’ life. Countess Leopoldina Silva-Tarouca, daughter of Count František Šternberk, came to Prague to live with her son Bedřich. The young man inherited from his grandfather the love of art, was fond of drawing since his childhood and now in Prague he got for his drawing master the father of Mánes. The count was 21 years old. Joseph Mánes was 17, both possessed of a soft, sensitive temperament, and they became fast frieds for life. When Bedřich later became a priest in Moravia, the Moravian seat of the Silva-Tarouca family, the castle of Čechy, was Mánes’ haven of refuge. Count Bedřich Tarouca was an enthusiastic Bohemian patriot and soon made the young artist acquainted with the aims of the national movement. It was a strange whim of chance that a young nobleman should have shown the Prague student of art the road to his people.

Around the year 1844 the new life in Prague gave many signs of soon bursting into bloom. The youngest artistic generation, headed by Karel Svoboda, began to lay stress on nationality as well as art, and Mánes would surely have become one of the leading spirits of his school, if he had not gone to Munich after his father’s death. It is evident that the “patriots” hoped for much from Mánes, for we find in the “Česká Včela” (Bohemian Bee) a remark that “removal to Munich surely will not prevent Mánes from keeping up his relations with the younger artists and countrymen from we expect a new epoch in Bohemian art that was once so glorious.”

In Munich Manes’ genius matured. He came back strong, virile, selfconfident, all within the space of three years spent in the city on the Iser which at that time cultivated art feverishly under the passionate patronage of King Louis. In the Bavarian city, too, Mánes became a conscious Czech patriot; he insisted on writing his name with a dash over the second letter and in conversation always defended earnestly his Bohemian country. Ferd. J. Náprstek tells us that in a company of artists which he once attended in the city of Munich, the famous Schwanthaler speaking of Mánes said that Mánes always was fighting in defense of the Czechs by word and deed. Early in 1847 Mánes returned to Prague, and when on April 30, 1848, “Slovanská Lípa” (Slav Lindentree) came to be organized to be the center of the political and democratic regeneration in Bohemia, he became at once a member. It will be remembered that Palacký, Rieger, Erben and other great men sat on the executive committee. When in November, 1848, the Union of Decorative Artists of Bohemia was established, a society at first including in its membership Germans, but soon purely Czech and still in existence, Mánes was commissioned to carry out the first work undertaken by the society, namely the publication of portraits of the chief Bohemian statesmen. The leaders of the nation were at that time in Kroměříž in attendance upon the first Austrian parliament. Mánes came there in the first part of January to make the portraits of Dr. A. M. Pinkas. Dr. Ant. Strobach and Dr. F. L. Rieger. These three pencil drawings are the first fruits of Manes’ genius. The best of them is Rieger’s portrait. The young, fiery statesman, bold, clever, uncompromising, who had just ignited the enthusiasm of his people and drew the attention of all Europe by his speech of January 6, 1849, on the first paragraph of the proposed constitution “All authority in the state proceeds from the people”, this man lives before us in Mánes’ drawing as a veritable tribune of the people. A noble, high forehead, large, glowing eye, the whole body with the closed first reveals a great orator. February 8, a month before the parliament was dissolved, Mánes was through with his work. With his first portraits he excelled all that had been done before him in that line and reached a height of accomplishment not exceeded for decades to come. Only in Max Švabinský have the Czechs a portrait painter equal to the great Mánes.

Thus we have reached the threshold of the most modern period of the Bohemian Fine Arts. A separate sketch of this epoch will appear in the new volume of the Bohemian Review.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1944, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 79 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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