At the height of their meteoric careers, Frederic Lord Leighton, Hans Makart, Jan Matejko, Mihály von Munkácsy, Franz von Lenbach, Friedrich August von Kaulbach and Franz von Stuck were celebrated as princely painters (Malerfürsten, literally painter-princes) and enjoyed all the privileges of Europes high society. They were wealthy, respected and moved in the same elite circles as the rich and famous. Their homes and studios were notable for their splendour, and people thronged to have their portraits painted and to see their sensational pictures. Very few artists attained the lofty status of princely painters and the public honours this exalted position entailed.
This exhibition is the first to shed light on the phenomenon of the princely painter which transcended national borders, reaching its apogee in the 1870s and 80s before fading away with the outbreak of the First World War. The exhibition focuses on the painters carefully crafted, highly stylised public personas and the cult-like veneration they inspired. More adroitly than their colleagues, the princely painters used their networks, the new reproductive media, exhibitions, studio visits and the press to advance their social status and to market their works to collectors worldwide.
The special appeal of this exhibition lies in the juxtapositions of the seven painters and their work and in the intriguing glimpses of their charmed lives. By shining a light on the phenomenon of the princely painter a hitherto ignored facet of the history of modern art the exhibition opens new insights and research perspectives.
1. In the Palace of Art
Being seen to live and work in circumstances of considerable grandeur was extremely important for the reputation and career of a princely painter. The splendid façades of their residences provided an indication of the extraordinary luxury within the home of a princely painter was a palace of art. From the mid1870s, the desire for such ostentatious display of success increased noticeably: Munkácsy moved into a palatial home; Leighton added the sumptuous Arab Hall to his London house, and Lenbach and Kaulbach commissioned Munichs best-known architect with the design of their Italianate villas. The furnishing of their homes was as individual as their personal styles and taste as collectors. Jan Matejko had furniture brought in from Venice, Leighton purchased countless antique tiles from Damascus, Lenbach and Kaulbach filled their houses with exquisite antiques and paintings, Stuck designed all the furniture of his home himself.
The focal point of each of these residences was the studio. It was not so much a place of work in the conventional sense as a space in which to socialise and conduct sales. Access to the studio was a privilege. The furnishing of Makarts famously opulent studio exerted an extraordinary influence on the taste of Viennas bourgeoisie and became the model on which Lenbach based his own studio. Munkácsys atelier was admired as the most elegant in Paris. As a magnificent stage, the studio dazzled visitors and shifted the focus away from the physical act of painting to the artists social status. Paintings and photographs of the princely painters in their lavishly decorated studios tend to show them at their easel elegantly dressed, but not actually painting.
2. Staging the Public Persona
Although the princely painters could draw on their network of contacts and their popularity to position themselves in society and the art scene, they continuously had to prove and reinvent themselves to assert and maintain their lofty status. Their strategies to achieve this included stylisation and the careful staging of public appearances. They modelled their demeanour and attire on celebrated Old Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens. Portraits painted by themselves or their artist friends or, indeed, in the form of photographs were another important tool that could be used to boost their popularity and market value. Several princely painters experimented with the relatively new medium of photography, and photographic portraits in the popular and collectible carte de visite format were as important to the diffusion of an artists image as their grand self-portraits.
The artists families took an active part in the public life of the princely painters and were included in the mise en scène of the image they sought to project. The wives played a central role in the brilliant salons and entertainments hosted by their husbands and were portrayed by them as radiant beauties and muses. Paintings and photographs of the children present them as little princesses and princes. Matejkos strikingly sumptuous portraits of his children, painted in the manner of Anthony van Dyck, bear witness to the artists self-confidence. Stucks numerous portraits of his daughter Mary were a huge commercial success.
3. The Princely Painter Brand
The popularity of the princely painters was such that information about many of their paintings was released before the works were actually completed; their exhibitions were advertised in the press and on billboards and accompanied by catalogues and affordable reproductions. This level of success required strategic planning. The artists cultivated close ties with art dealers to secure the best possible conditions: financial security, solo exhibitions with state-of-the-art lighting, touring to the US and no-expense-spared marketing. Presentations of their paintings at international exhibitions drew vast crowds. Monumental formats almost inevitably attracted the greatest attention, but a princely painter was under no obligation to paint big. Nor was there a genre or subject that guaranteed success. Historical subjects were as likely to ignite public enthusiasm as mythological, religious or contemporary ones. However, decorative paintings of various sizes and portraits were best suited to enhance the image of a princely painter. The nude was seen as Makarts domain. Lenbach and Kaulbach distanced themselves from realistic genre painting, preferring instead to focus on the highly lucrative portrait market.
Princely painters were called on as experts in practically all matters of art and championed conservationist endeavours. They took on responsibilities and high offices in the art world and sought to support and promote young talents. But for all their success, they were no strangers to the dark side of fame: the higher the rise, the deeper the fall, the harsher the criticism and the more virulent the envy.
4. Before and Behind the Scenes
Princely painters could call on extensive networks of contacts and enjoyed privileged access to the aristocracy and the inner circles of power. As successful self-promoters, they cultivated friendships and strategic contacts with art dealers and publicists. Honorary academy memberships, presidencies of new artists organisations, commitment to public works and extended trips abroad strengthened their national and international connections. They belonged to the elite of society; Leighton went on to become president of the Royal Academy, Matejko and Kaulbach directors of the academies of Kraków and Munich. Lenbach was one of the founding members of the artists association Allotria; Stuck co-founded the Munich Secession. Princely painters were not granted audiences, they mixed with royalty as nearequals: Kaulbach joined the tsar and his family for breakfast, Lenbach took walks with Frederick I, Grand Duke of Baden, and his wife, Princess Louise of Prussia, on the island of Mainau in Lake Constance.
Princely painters entertained on a lavish scale, opening their homes and studios to members of the aristocracy and the leading lights of the world of art and literature. It was not only the brush but also the aura of the princely painter that ennobled his admirers of all ages and from all walks of life actresses, industrialists wives, the tsarina, intellectuals or the pope everyone was received and portrayed in great style. And sitters were willing to part with a great deal of money for the privilege of having their portraits painted by so prestigious an artist. The friendship and mutual appreciation of the princely painters among themselves found expression in group photographs and grand portraits of the artists and their families.
5. Artists Celebrations and Festivities
Parties thrown by or in honour of princely painters could take many forms, from private soirees and house concerts to costume balls and public processions or pageants. For the artists, these events provided an opportunity to network and to present themselves in the best possible light. For their public, they were a rare chance to share in the life of the fabled painters. Among the favourite venues were the studios and residences of the princely painters as well as those of other artists, hotels and theatres. The very organisation of these festivities was an event in its own right: the announcement, the design of sets and costumes, the programming and allocation of roles, and, of course, the excitement of the guest list.
The costume balls Makart gave in his grand studio were legendary. He was also in charge of the historical pageant held in Vienna in 1879 in honour of the silver wedding anniversary of the imperial couple. Such was the success of the grandiose procession that it came to be known as the Makart pageant. Equally memorable was the lavish costume ball Pageant of Emperor Charles V organised by the Munich artists society Allotria in 1876 that was accompanied by a procession. Stuck, the man behind the In Arcadia costume ball of 1898, which took over both of the Munich Royal Court theatres, reimagined the Golden Age of classical antiquity. The princely painters commemorated and celebrated their presence at these events in photographs and paintings.
In addition to these public appearances, the princely painters hosted smaller soirees for their circle of friends. Leighton gave dinner parties, where the celebrities of the day rubbed shoulders; Liszt played the piano for a select audience of fellow-guests in Munkácsys salon.
In addition to prizes and other commendations, princely painters enjoyed special honours and privileges that can be read as colourful expressions of an extraordinary artist cult, similar to the exalted veneration for great poets or musicians. An important precedent was the anecdote about Emperor Charles V who had stooped to pick up a paintbrush for Titian, declaring that the painter was worthy of being served by Caesar.
The honours and homages were highly individual and depended on the personality of the artist, his patrons and social milieu. A singular event was the presentation of a sceptre to Matejko during a state ceremony in Kraków to symbolise his supreme reign in the domain of the arts. The historical pageant organised by Makart in Vienna in honour of the imperial couples wedding anniversary became known as the Makart Pageant. The audience did not so much pay homage to the emperor and his wife as to itself and to Makart as the creative genius who had kindled a powerful sense of collective identity. The festivities in honour of Munkácsy as the creator of the monumental painting Christ Before Pilate went on for an entire day: in addition to a ceremony in the Budapest Kunsthalle, there was a banquet at the National Casino, a torchlight procession and a costume ball organised by artists. The celebration of Lenbachs 50th birthday by his artist colleagues, on the other hand, was tinged with a hefty dose of irony: Kaulbachs caricatures in the Allotria magazine left no cliché unturned and poked fun at Lenbachs status as a living legend. Stuck captured the lavish festivities laid on for his own 50th in a series of paintings that leave posterity in no doubt about his exalted position as a princely painter.
7. The Final Curtain
The cult of the princely painters reached its apogee in the pomp and circumstance of their ceremonial funerals. Viewings, extravagant processions and memorials allowed the public to pay their last respects. Legend has it that all of Vienna was racked with grief at the passing of Makart. In Kraków, Matejko was buried with near-regal splendour, and an enormous crowd thronged to watch the funeral procession of Munkácsy in Budapest. The death of a princely painter was attended by debates about commemorative and funerary monuments and the musealisation of the artist. In some cases, the cult-like veneration he had enjoyed during his lifetime took on a whole new dimension after his death.
Several princely painters presciently set down strategies for their posthumous remembrance and the administration of their estates in writing. Initiatives proposed by their widows, friends or members of the public further paved the way for their official commemoration. The musealisation of the home, studio and place of death of Matejko in Kraków and Lenbach in Munich can be seen as successful examples of musealisation. Madame Munkácsys plans for the transformation of her late husbands ornate Paris studio into a commemorative space, however, had to be abandoned. Of particular note is the relic-like preservation of personal possessions, for example palettes.
The fame of the princely painters began to fade in the dawn light of the twentieth century, and by the end of the First World War, their cult had lost all traction. What remained were painters rather than painter-princes. The posthumous co-optation of their works by Adolf Hitler, who was keen to acquire paintings by Makart, Lenbach, Kaulbach and Stuck for his collections and representative purposes, tarnished them and seriously tainted their longterm critical reception.
The exhibition is on view at Bundeskunsthalle
through 27 January.