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Overbeck, Johann Friedrich

OVERBECK, JOHANN FRIEDRICH (1789-1869), German painter, the reviver of " Christian art " in the 19th century, was born in Liibeck on the 4th of July 1789. His ancestors for three generations had been Protestant pastors; his father was doctor of laws, poet, mystic pietist and burgomaster of Liibeck. Within a stone's throw of the family mansion in the Konigstrasse stood the gymnasium, where the uncle, doctor of theology and a voluminous writer, was the master; there the nephew became a classic scholar and received instruction in art.

The young artist left Liibeck in March 1806, and entered as student the academy of Vienna, then under the direction of F. H. Fiiger, a painter of some renown, but of the pseudo-classic school of the French David. Here was gained thorough knowledge, but the teachings and associations proved unendurable to the sensitive, spiritual-minded youth. Overbeck wrote to a friend that he had fallen among a vulgar set, that every noble thought was suppressed within the academy and that losing all faith in humanity he turned inwardly on himself. These words are a key to his future position and art. It seemed to him that in Vienna, and indeed throughout Europe, the pure springs of Christian art had been for centuries diverted and corrupted, and so he sought out afresh the living source, and, casting on one side his contemporaries, took for his guides the early and preRaphaelite painters of Italy. At the end of four years, differences had grown so irreconcilable that Overbeck and his band of followers were e.xpelled from the academy. True art, he writes, he had sought in Vienna in vain - " Oh! I was full of it; my whole fancy was possessed by Madonnas and Christs, but nowhere could I find response." Accordingly he left for Rome, carrying his half-finished canvas " Christ's Entry into Jerusalem," as the charter of his creed - " I will abide by the Bible; I elect it as my standing-point."

Overbeck in 1810 entered Rome, which became for fifty-nine years the centre of his unremitting labour. He was joined by a goodly company, including Cornelius, Wilhelm Schadow and Philip Veit, who took up their abode in the old Franciscan convent of San Isidore on the Pincian Hill, and were known among friends and enemies by the descriptive epithets - " the Nazarites," " the pre-Raphaelites," " the new-old school," " the German-Roman artists," " the church-romantic painters," " the German patriotic and rehgious painters." Their precept was hard and honest work and holy hving; they eschewed the antique as pagan, the Renaissance as false, and built up a severe revival on simple nature and on the serious art of Perugino, Pinturicchio, Francia and the young Raphael. The characteristics of the style thus educed were nobihty of idea, precision and even hardness of outline, scholastic composition, with the addition of light, shade and colour, not for allurement, but chielly for perspicuity and completion of motive. Overbeck was mentor in the movement; a fellow-labourer writes: " No one who saw him or heard him speak could question his purity of motive, his deep insight and abounding knowledge; he is a treasury of art and poetry, and a saintly man." But the struggle was hard and poverty its reward. IIel[)ful friends, however, came in Nicbuhr, Bunsen and Frederick Schlegel. Overbeck in 1813 joined the Roman Catholic Church, and thereby he believed that his art received Christian baptism.

Faith in a mission begat enthusiasm among kindred minds, and timely commissions followed. The Prussian consul, Bartholdi, had a house on the brow of the Pincian, and he engaged Overbeck, Cornelius, Veit and Schadow to decorate a room 24 ft. square with frescoes (now in the Berlin gallery) from the story of Joseph and his Brethren. The subjects which fell to the lot of Overbeck were the " Seven Years of Famine " and " Joseph sold by his Brethren." These tentative wall-pictures, finished in 1818, produced so favourable an impression among the Itahans that in the same year Prince Massimo commissioned Overbeck, Cornelius, Veit and Schnorr to cover the walls and ceilings of his garden pavilion, near St John Lateran, with frescoes illustrative of Tasso, Dante and Ariosto. To Overbeck was assigned, in a room 15 ft. square, the illustration of Tasso 's Jerusalem Delivered; and of eleven compositions^jhe largest and most noteworthy, occupying one entire wall, isv'ne " Meeting of Godfrey de Bouillon and Peter the Hermit." The completion of the frescoes - very unequal in merit - after ten years' delay, the overtaxed and enfeebled painter delegated to his friend Joseph Fiihrich. The leisure thus gained was devoted to a thoroughly congenial theme, the " Vision of St Francis," a wall-painting 20 ft. long, figures life size, finished in 1830, for the church of Sta Maria degli Angeli near Assist. Overbeck and the brethren set themselves the task of recovering the neglected art of fresco and of monumental painting; they adopted the old methods, and their success led to memorable revivals throughout Europe.

Fifty years of the artist's laborious fife were given to oil and easel paintings, of which the chief, for size and import, are the following: " Christ's Entry into Jerusalem " (1824), in the Marien Kirche, Liibeck; " Christ ;s Agony in the Garden " (1835), in the great hospital, Hamburg; " Lo Spo= q^ (he (1836), Raczynski gallery, Berlin; the " Triump'by hfflocks, and the Arts" (1840), in the Stadel Institut, Fr.atches of wood and (1S46), in the Marien Kirche, Liibeck; the Zee however west Thomas" (1851), in the possession ofuuntry is low-lying and London; the " Assumption of the Made pasture lands. CattleCathedral; "Christ delivered from tg are consequently the chief on a ceiling in the Quirinal Palace - ny of the people are engaged and a direct attack on the Italian ter river system of the province now covered by a canvas adorned v of hills. The first of these works are marked by religious fer\at Markelo to the Lemeler study, with a dry, severe handling, a the Vecht and Regge, and Overbeck belongs to eclectic schook-e and the Salland streams ranks among thinkers, and his pen was 1 unite at Zwolle to form pencil. He was a minor poet, an essa'Jls extends through the letter-writer. His style is wordy and tec called Twente, from borne down with emotion and possessed tasin of the Almelosche " subjectivity." His pictures were didactiver Vecht crosses the of propagandas for his artistic and rehgious f;te Water, which comof such compositions as the " Triumph of Rilsche Diep and with ments " he enforced by rapturous hterary et-e along the streams the issue of his life: his constant thoughts, riculture and cattleand chastened by prayer, he transposed into '-grounds. \ large ( thus were evolved countless and much-priis waste. Forest ' cartoons, of which the most considerable are tally in the east, cartoons (1852); Via Crucis, fourteen wate> Salland and the (1857); the Seven Sacraments, seven cartoorhich is extracted beck's compositions, with few exceptions, ar<y. Peat-digging life-work he sums up in the words - " Art to mi an early period, David, whereupon I would desire that psalnred the portion times be sounded to the praise of the Lord." He neighbourhood 1869, aged eighty, and lies buried in San Bernardo, the church wherein he worshipped.

There are biographies by J. Beavington Atkinson (1882) and Howitt (1886). (J. B. A.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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