Landscape, heroes and folktales: German Romantic prints and drawings

29 September 2011 – 1 April 2012
Room 90
Admission free

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a time of great cultural flowering in Germany. In this country, the era is best known through its music, by such great masters as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Many of the writers that were their contemporaries are also household names; notably Goethe, probably the most dominant European author at the time.

In philosophy, no figures were more influential than Kant and Hegel who completely revolutionized the structure of speculative discourse. This great cultural and intellectual flowering was complemented by a growing sense of national identity.

The new British Museum exhibition Landscape, heroes and folktales: German Romantic prints and drawings, explores the visual arts of this remarkable period which are less well known in the UK. The Napoleonic wars in Europe caused economic ruin. In 1806, Napoleon had forced the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval structure which had held the loose conglomeration of German states and principalities together for centuries. The destruction of the traditional art market caused early nineteenth-century German artists to seek a new identity. Some returned to the values and techniques of medieval and Renaissance art as part of this process, and an enthusiastic study of Dürer’s engravings and the art of Raphael is particularly striking in, for example, the linear style of draughtsmanship of Peter Cornelius, or the work of Friedrich Overbeck, whose composition, Italia and Germania, epitomised the mood of the period.

Schnorr von Carolsfeld spent most of his life working on designs for an ambitiously illustrated Picture Bible, all deeply imbued with Raphael’s style. The most striking prints of the period were made in the recently-invented technique of lithography, such as the Portrait of the Eberhard brothers by Johann Anton Ramboux, or the beautiful set of landscapes of days of the week showing views around Salzburg by Ferdinand Olivier. A surge of interest in landscape is a dominant feature of this period. In contrast to Italianate classical views so typical of the eighteenth century, delicate studies of plants and trees and large prints and drawings of a rugged countryside reveal a much deeper interest in Germanic landscape. A group of wildlife watercolours by Wilhelm Tischbein, the artist best known for his close friendship with Goethe, are remarkable for their freshness; and etchings by the school teacher and philologist, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, show idyllic scenes of lovers in verdant woodland glades. The greatest and rarest of German romantic prints, The Four Times of Day of 1805 by Philipp Otto Runge will be framed on the wall at the entrance of the exhibition.

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (1759–1835), I too was in Arcadia (detail). Etching, 1801. From a private collection.


For further information please contact Esme Wilson on 020 7323 8394 or