Desert, skulls and steelworks: Paintings of Eugen Bracht 1

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), The Shore of Oblivion (1889), oil on canvas, 139 x 257 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late nineteenth century, the German landscape painter Eugen Bracht (1842–1921) was as well known as Arnold Böcklin, and Bracht’s Symbolist masterpiece was so popular that he painted at least six versions of it. Kaiser Wilhelm II hung his copy next to Böcklin’s renowned Symbolist painting The Island of the Dead. Yet today Bracht and his Shore of Oblivion (Gestade der Vergessenheit) (1889) are almost forgotten. Here, in this article and the next, is his story and a selection of his paintings.

Eugen Felix Prosper Bracht was born in Morges, on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but his family moved to Darmstadt in Germany, where he became a student at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts. During the summer of 1860, he painted with Hans Thoma in Schwarzwald. In 1861, he moved to Düsseldorf to study under the great Norwegian landscape painter Hans Gude, but three years later he abandoned painting and worked in business in Berlin for over a decade. In 1876, he returned to art, moving back to Karlsruhe and concentrating on painting landscapes.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Sieben Steinhäuser (‘Seven Stone Houses’) (1875), oil on canvas, 43 x 79.5 cm, Bomann-Museum, Celle, Germany. Image by Hajotthu, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bracht’s landscapes are unusual in a quiet way. His Sieben Steinhäuser (Seven Stone Houses) from 1875 shows a famous group of five dolmen graves on Lüneberg Heath in Lower Saxony, Germany, which are thought to date from around 2800 BCE. According to local legend, they were created by the Giant of Borg.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Göhren on Rügen (1877), oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 47.3 x 34 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

He also painted on the island of Rügen, just off the Baltic coast of Germany. Göhren on Rügen (1877) is a magnificent oil sketch of this location when it was still relatively wild, complete with a feral goat.

From 1880-81, Bracht travelled through the Middle East, in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. His paintings from that trip established him as an Orientalist, although his motifs were quite different from those which had become popular.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Dusk on the Dead Sea (1881), oil on canvas, 111 x 199 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Dusk on the Dead Sea (1881) shows the unearthly landscape on the shore of this famous lake, the parched land strewn with the dessicated remains of trees.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), In the Arabian Desert (1882), oil on canvas, 121.5 x 200 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Bracht’s paintings of the Middle East avoid the crowded and bustling towns, preferring the barren, arid areas in which just a handful of people travel with their camels In the Arabian Desert (1882).

In 1882, he settled down as a Professor of Landscape Painting in the Royal Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Memory of Gizeh (1883), oil on panel, 15.5 x 21.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Although painted when he was back in Berlin from sketches made in front of the motif, Memory of Gizeh (1883) captures the scene and its rich colours perfectly.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), From the Sinai Desert (1884), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 121 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

From the Sinai Desert (1884) shows more groups on the move in the relentless heat.

The following year, 1885, Bracht painted a large cyclorama of the Battle of Chattanooga for an American company. I suspect that depicted the series of battles which took place in October and November 1863, during the American Civil War, in which Major General Ulysses S Grant led Union forces to victory over General Braxton Bragg. It seems to have been commercially successful.

Then in 1888, Bracht started painting the work which brought him fame: The Shore of Oblivion (1889).

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), The Shore of Oblivion (1889), oil on canvas, 139 x 257 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

On a remote and forbidding shore, below towering rock slabs, small waves lap on the sandy beach below snowslopes. The low sun lights the top band across the rocks, while behind is a dense and dark bank of cloud. Scattered across the beach are large numbers of bleached white objects, which on close examination (detail below) prove to be human skulls, apparently washed up by the water. This is the apocalypse, all that remains of the human race, oblivion for humankind.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), The Shore of Oblivion (detail) (1889), oil on canvas, 139 x 257 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know what inspired this stark landscape. In the late nineteenth century, some expeditions took artists and photographers with them to record locations such as this. For example, in 1869 the American painter William Bradford (1823–1892) sailed with an expedition to the Arctic. Their copiously illustrated account of the journey was published in 1873, and the artist toured Britain at about that time. Bracht will also have had ample inspiration from views of the Alps.

This first version of The Shore of Oblivion was exhibited in Darmstadt in October 1889, to a rapturous reception, and the painting was acquired (free) by the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig. A copy was made for Kaiser Wilhelm II, who hung it next to Böcklin’s Island of the Dead, another major Symbolist landscape painting of the time. Bracht was duly rewarded with a Grand Golden Medal.

Bracht made further versions in 1897 (two), 1911 and 1916.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Um-Baghek on the Dead Sea (1891), oil on canvas, 41.5 x 67 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, not content with being a renowned painter of Symbolist landscapes, Bracht’s style became distinctly Impressionist, as shown in this view of Um-Baghek on the Dead Sea (1891), with its more painterly brushwork and rich colours.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Isle of Bergeggi (1893), oil on panel, 55 x 42.7 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1893, Bracht painted the tiny Isle of Bergeggi viewed from the heights on the mainland of Italy, to the south-west of Genoa. Its towering storm clouds are threatening.

Eugen Bracht (1842–1921), Rocky Coast on Sylt (1897), oil on canvas on cardboard, 61.5 x 50.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later, he visited the long and low German island of Sylt in the North Sea, off the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, where he painted this Rocky Coast on Sylt (1897).