I first came across the landscapes of Hans Thoma (1839–1924) some time ago, and was surprised at how varied his subjects were. Little-known outside his native Germany, he was a prolific painter with a very individual style. Let me show you a small selection of his landscape and mythology paintings.
Thoma was born in the Black Forest, in Germany, and started his training as a lithographer in Basel, before turning to painting ornamental clock faces. From 1859, he studied at the academy in Karlsruhe, under Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and Ludwig Des Coudres.
Autumn Tree, Wiesenthal was painted when he was still a student in Karlsruhe, in about 1862-63. It has the high chroma colours and gestural brushwork indicative of Impressionism, at a time when Claude Monet was still painting in a tighter, realist style.
After completing his training in 1866, Thoma moved from Karlsruhe to Basel, then to Düsseldorf.
In Chickenfeed (1867), Thoma tackles this genre scene in a more traditional and detailed realist style.
At first sight, Thoma’s In the Sunshine (1867) appears to show an oddly flattened face, with both the woman’s eyes visible. In fact the woman’s head is shown in profile, and what seems to be her left eye is actually not part of the face at all. Otherwise he has combined colour contrasts with a carefully-detailed landscape.
In 1868, Thoma moved to Paris, where he came to admire the work of Gustave Courbet, and the Barbizon School. He returned to Germany in 1870, settling until 1876 in Munich, which was then the centre of German arts.
Under the Elderberry (1871) is a delightful portrait of a mother and her young child, with finely detailed hair and elder flowers. His colours are less bold than earlier, which is better-suited to this subject.
The eight Children Dancing in a Ring (1872) are here set in an alpine meadow in Bavaria, with pastures and high mountains in the far distance. If there was any doubt about Thoma’s ability to paint realistic faces, those in this work should dispel them.
Thoma’s painting of two lovers in Summer from 1872 shows a more painterly style again, in the flowers and vegetation. It also demonstrates his inclination towards mediaeval romance, and ‘faerie’ paintings, with the chain of three winged putti in the upper right.
Siblings (1873) is an example of his homely genre scenes. The brother sits disconsolate at the table, whilst his sister reads intently. By the window is a spinning wheel, the wool above it adorned with a blue ribbon.
In 1874, Thoma visited Italy for the first time, to paint.
Ring dancing appears again in Children and Putti in a Ring (1874), although now the winged putti have come down from the sky to follow a young faun-like figure and a nymph. At the bottom left is a snake, which threatens to disrupt the scene. As with many of his mythical settings, Thoma doesn’t seem to be depicting a specific story, but has his curious creatures populate an enchanted landscape.
Thoma’s pure landscapes include explorations of big skies and the transient effects of light, as in his Mainebene (1875), which shows the plain of the River Main lit by shafts of light.
He controls the light skilfully in A Peaceful Sunday (1876). An elderly couple are sat at a plain wooden table, in their urban apartment. She works at her crochet, he reads. You can almost hear the soft, measured tick of the clock which is out of sight, slowly passing their remaining years.
Three Mermaids (1879) is a complete contrast, with its raucous nudity and frolics with fish under the light of the moon. Thoma’s mermaids are remarkably human in form, and lack fish tails.
In 1878, Thoma moved to Frankfurt, where he was a close friend of the painter Wilhelm Steinhausen. In 1879, Thoma visited Britain, and the following year he made a return trip to Italy.
As was popular during the nineteenth century, Thoma repurposed Nordic mythology with a Germanic interpretation. The Trek of the Gods to Valhalla (1880) shows a scene which might have been inspired by Wagner’s Ring cycle, which was first performed at Bayreuth in 1876.
I am not sure of the mythical background to his Sea Wonders (1881), in which four boys have raised up a surface on which a winged putto is standing, clutching an egg. It is, nevertheless, a powerful image.
The Öd, View of Holzhausenpark in Frankfurt am Main (1883) shows what is perhaps better-known as Adolph-von-Holzhausen Park, which started as the larger Holzhausen Oed in around 1552, and became a public park in 1912-13. The prominent white building is its distinctive moated baroque summer residence.
The next article will resume Thoma’s story, and his work, in 1886, as his fortunes started to change.
Wikipedia (in German).