By the late 1830s, Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880) was well-established as a ‘Gothic’ Romantic painter, whose views of isolated castles in mountainous surroundings complemented increasingly popular Gothic fiction and poetry. Caspar David Friedrich died in 1840, and Lessing was a leading member of the Düsseldorf ‘School’.
His Chapel on the Edge of the Wood from 1839 employs his now-classic formula of remoteness, religion, and rugged landscape, but in this case his view is more populous than many. Approaching this small church in the dying light of the day is its cloaked priest, together with eight reasonably close figures.
Those ‘Gothic’ paintings have a quietly sinister feeling about them, which contrasts with the profound tranquillity and beauty of his pure landscapes. In this case, in his Silesian Landscape from 1841, he has returned to the great floodplain near where he was born. In all that great expanse of countryside there is but a single figure, who is walking along the rough track into its dusk light.
Lessing had continued to paint history paintings, mostly set in mediaeval days, such as this of Johann Hus at the Constance Council (1842). Jan Hus, John Hus, or Johann Hus was a reformist Catholic priest who became rector of the Charles University in Prague, and lived between c 1369-1415, before Luther, Calvin or Zwingli.
Hus’ reforms had made him controversial, popular in Bohemia and he won the support of King Wenceslaus IV and his government. The churches of Prague were put under interdiction as a result, so Hus left the city and continued to preach in the country. He was summoned to the Council of Constance, the sixteenth ecumenical council of the Catholic church, which imprisoned and investigated him before he was brought to trial in 1415. When he refused to recant, he was burned at the stake for ‘heresy’.
Lessing’s painting shows Hus responding to the investigations of the Council.
In 1846, Lessing was invited to become Director of the Städel Institute in Frankfurt, but declined.
Lessing appears to have painted The Siege (Defence of a Churchyard During the Thirty Years’ War) in 1848 to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia, which brought that war to an end. Responsible for the deaths of around eight million people in central Europe, it was both a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, and a war between the house of Habsburg and its many opponents.
Lessing shows villagers and soldiers packing the wall of the graveyard of a burned-out church. A priest is administering the last rites to a soldier lying on his back on a tombstone. In the near distance there is the smoke of a nearby village being attacked, and a column of troops are heading this way through the ripe corn.
Riflemen Defending a Pass from 1851 also has a military theme, although here probably not so specific. Soldiers are lining the edge of crags which overlook a pass, seen at the lower left corner, through which their enemy is travelling. One casualty is already draped against a rock at the right. In the distance a high fortress is under attack, with smoke billowing from both its towers.
This portrait of the famous Eltz Castle in the Eifel ‘mountains’ was painted by Lessing in about 1855. It is one of only three such castles on that bank of the River Rhine which have survived unscathed, and is still occupied by descendants of the same family who had it built there in the twelfth century.
In 1858, Lessing became Director of the Gemaldegalerie in Karlsruhe. He was invited back to Düsseldorf to direct its Academy in 1867, but he declined and remained in Karlsruhe instead.
In his more painterly Soldiers Resting from 1877, eery lighting shows a group of soldiers resting around a fire, by a small lake in a rugged and rocky landscape. There is also a lone figure on the skyline near the centre.
The following year, he painted this Landscape with Castle Ruins and Riders (1878), showing a small group of people with horses, making their way into a duststorm in the hills. The convoy has just crossed a small bridge, with the lonely ruins of an old castle in the left distance.
The final painting that I have of Lessing’s works is an undated view of a Rocky Landscape, Gorge with Ruin, which shows the burned-out ruins of an old castle beside an icefall, presumably in higher ground towards the Alps.
Lessing died in Karlsruhe in 1880. Among the many well-known artists who were products of the Düsseldorf ‘School’ of painting were: Andreas and Oswald Achenbach, Peter Nicolai Arbo, Albert Bierstadt, George Caleb Bingham, Arnold Böcklin, Alexandre Calame, Fanny Churberg, Hans Dahl, Anselm Feuerbach, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Hans Fredrik Gude, William Stanley Haseltine, William Morris Hunt, Eastman Johnson, Bruno Liljefors, Otto Modersohn, Adelsteen Normann, Ivan Shishkin, Lesser Ury, and Worthington Whittredge. Most of those have paintings featured on this site, and several have whole articles devoted to their work.
Wikipedia (in German).