Three hundred years ago today, on 3 October 1722, Johann Heinrich Tischbein (1722–1789) was born. He went on to lead a whole family of painters in Germany, spanning three generations. He’s sometimes referred to as the Elder, or the Kasseler Tischbein, after the city of Kassel where he kept his studio for much of his career.
Tischbein wasn’t born into an artistic family: his father was a baker in Haina, Germany, but of his eight children, five went on to paint for their living. When he was fourteen he started studying wallpaper painting, and moved on to learn oils under Johann Georg von Freese (1701–1775). These new skills took him into the courts of nobility and minor royalty, and led to one Count sponsoring his further training with Carle van Loo (1705-1765) in Paris. His new teacher had won the Prix de Rome in 1724, and had worked extensively in Italy. Thus Tischbein went to Venice and studied there with Giovanni Battista Piazzatta (1682-1754), following which he spent a year in Rome.
When Tischbein returned to Germany in 1753, he was appointed court painter to William VIII, the ruler of Hesse-Kassel. Unfortunately, that was soon disrupted by French military advances during the Seven Years’ War, forcing Tischbein to seek safety in other locations until 1762.
During this period, he painted several fine mythological works, including Jupiter in the Guise of Diana Seducing Callisto (1756), showing this famous story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
His account of the myth of Acis and Galatea painted in 1758 is another unembroidered account from Ovid. Galatea is almost naked in the arms of Acis, as Polyphemus peers at them, a voyeur behind a tree trunk.
Perhaps in response to the war, he also painted the first of his works telling the story of Arminius, which I show at the end.
In about 1760, Tischbein painted The Rape of Europa, one of the great standards of mythological painting, here in an elaborate floral rendering.
When Kassel was more peaceful and Tischbein could return to his studio, he was appointed Professor at its newly established Collegium Carolinum.
Inevitably, many of his paintings are portraits of the minor royalty and nobility of the day. More remarkable among them is this group portrait of Charles I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and his family, painted in 1762. This apparently includes the following:
- Charles I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1713-1780)
- Princess Philippine Charlotte of Prussia (1716-1801)
- Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick (1735-1806)
- Albrecht Heinrich von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1742-1761)
- Augusta Dorothea, Abbess of Gandersheim (1749-1810)
- Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Crown Princess of Prussia (1746-1840)
- Wilhelm Adolf von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1745-1770)
- Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1739-1807)
- Princess Sophie Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1737-1817)
- Frederick Augustus, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Oels (1740-1805)
- Leopold of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1752-1785).
Tischbein continued to paint stories from Ovid, here that of Narcissus from about 1770, with a reflection which appears almost plausible until you study it carefully.
The following year brought Antony and Cleopatra (1773), showing the couple in peace together as dark clouds build in the distance.
Tischbein also painted in watercolour, and appears to have read widely. This informal watercolour of Charles and Ubaldo Watching Two Nymphs Bathing (1782) shows an episode from Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, a text that Nicolas Poussin had been influenced by. These two knights formed a rescue team sent to recover the hero Rinaldo from Armida’s enchanted garden, and are here struggling to pass a distraction to their mission.
His most remarkable paintings, though, concern the Germanic tribes who defeated the Romans in Germany in 9 CE, during the reign of Augustus. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest and its hero Arminius have been painted occasionally, most recently in a German nationalist context. Arminius’ name was abbreviated to Armin, and mistranslated as Hermann; he is sometimes therefore known humorously as Hermann the German.
Tischbein may have initiated this nationalist theme in Hermann’s Triumph after Victory over Varus from 1758. This show’s Arminius’ Germanic tribesmen gathering after the defeat of the Romans, at the edge of the forest. A rather effeminate and pudgy Arminius stands, displaying the armour and distinctive red toga of the dead Roman leader, Publius Quinctilius Varus.
To the right, tribesmen carry the captured ‘eagles’ of the three Roman legions which were wiped out in the battle, and others sort through captured booty.
The reality was a slaughter which would have shocked even Goya. Surviving Roman soldiers were mutilated, executed, and some apparently cooked in large pots; others were taken into captivity. One group of Roman prisoners wasn’t liberated until Publius Pomponius Secundus attacked bands of Chatti forty years later. At least half of the Roman forces of 20,000-36,000 were killed, and the Romans were unable to bury those dead for six years.
When the Roman emperor Augustus heard of the catastrophic defeat, he is recorded as shouting repeatedly Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions! while butting his head against the wall. It remains one of the most decisive battles in recorded military history.
Towards the end of his career, Tischbein returned to the theme in at least two further paintings.
Hermann and Thusnelda Enthroned (1782) shows Arminius and his wife seated together amid the debris of the defeated Romans. A druid stood behind Arminius is listening to an account of the battle by one of the warriors.
Hermann and Thusnelda before their Father’s Corpse (1783) shows another legend about Arminius and his wife during the aftermath of the battle. In reality, Arminius is believed to have abducted and impregnated Thusnelda five years after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and the following year she was captured by the Roman general Germanicus, when she was pregnant and had returned to live with her pro-Roman father. Arminius was murdered by his own tribe in 21 CE.
Johann Heinrich Tischbein died in Kassell, Germany, in 1789, and many of his paintings are in the museum there.