|Click Image to Enlarge|
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|Portrait of a Girl, ca. 1823
Pencil on off-white paper
24.1 x 20.7 cm
Bequeathed by Dr. Grete Ring, 1954
A victim of tuberculosis, Franz Horny died prematurely at twenty-six, leaving behind only a limited oeuvre. No oil paintings by Horny survive, perhaps because the artist was too frequently ill during the last six years of his life to tackle the medium, confining himself instead to works on paper made in ink, pencil and watercolor.[i] It would be a mistake, however, to view Horny’s artistic promise as unfulfilled, his achievement in drawing a mere hint of what he might have accomplished as a painter. Unlike the Nazarenes, for whom drawing from life was largely a preparatory means, Horny, whether by necessity or preference, pursued the sketch as an aesthetic end in itself. As a German artist living in Italy in the early nineteenth century, Horny was almost inevitably drawn into the Nazarene circle, and, for a time, attempted to make works in their deliberate and morally weighty style. He never, however, embraced their preference for religious subjectsproducing mostly landscapes, nature studies and portraitsand his most characteristic drawings possess a dynamism unusual in Nazarene art.[ii] While the Nazarenes worked from the real in order to express the ideal, purifying and perfecting their subject matter, Horny had the tendency to convey his impressions of a scene with great immediacy and verve. It is exactly in this way that Horny’s drawing of a girl departs from the Nazarene ideal of portraiture, as exemplified in this exhibition by Friedrich Overbeck’s exquisite pencil drawing of his wife, Nina.
In his portrait of his wife, Overbeck was concerned with capturing the eternal, essential qualities of his model, not a sense of passing appearance. Time seems suspended, an effect achieved through both the iconic stillness of Nina’s pose and the lack of artistic process left visible on the page. In order to craft this concise image, the artist presumably first produced looser studies directly from life. But here his line is refined and deliberate, and all mistakes have been thoroughly erased, as not to compromise the effect of timeless perfection. In Horny’s drawing, however, we immediately register the many overlapping passes that the artist’s hand made over the surface of the paper. Horny’s line is swift, searching, less mediated than Overbeck’s, and more directly related to perception. His careful depiction of the girl’s face lends the drawing a still center, but every other part of the composition has been noticeably, even showily, drawn and re-drawn. There is the implicit sensation of time passingof the model shifting her weight and looking from side to side, as Horny makes adjustment after adjustment, drawing with a lighter, then a firmer, hand. What look at first like lines that have been imperfectly erased are, upon close inspection, revealed to be only softly drawn. The multiple contours of the body, the ghost curls of hair, and the shadowy indication of a chair are, in other words, not ‘mistakes’ that Horny tried to correct. To the contrary, they represent a frank display of the artist’s creative process. The result is an enhanced sense of authenticity and immediacy: the viewer becomes a witness to the making of the drawing and, by extension, to the scene that inspired it. While Overbeck’s Nina appears a distant, untouchable vision, we apprehend Horny’s model as just what she is: a girl sitting impassively in a chair, posing for an artist. We may not know the girl’s identitybeyond the presumed fact that she was a resident of Olevano, the small town to which Horny retreated during his final years[iii]but we have a strong intuitive sense of her reality. She is both palpably physical, with convincing weight and volume, and a person of a particular time and place, as evidenced by the details of her costume, which Horny describes with great specificity and structural clarity. A jeweler could hope to replicate her earring based on this drawing.
In addition to having more of an interest in external appearances than Overbeck, Horny is also stimulated more by the material properties of his drawing medium. While Overbeck sought to emulate the strict linearism of metalpoint, Horny freely exploits the full capacities of graphite. He achieves a wide range of tones and marks, using a very sharp point to crisply define the pupils and eyelids, for example, and the blunt side of the pencil to softly model the contours of the head. The luster of hair is conveyed through the hard, metallic sheen of the graphite, with highlights added by touches of the eraser. Erasure has also been used, with great sensitivity, to define the shape of the eye-socket, nose and lips. There is an abstract, almost geometric quality to the girl’s face: the circles of her pupils are reiterated in the firm delineation of her hairline and the double string of pearls around her neck. In contrast to the smooth, controlled head are the sketchy, calligraphic lines that make up the body. This juxtaposition of more and less “finished” parts seems a deliberate choice, and one that we see often in Horny’s work. It is this eloquent deployment of a non finito aesthetic that most distinguishes Horny from his Nazarene contemporaries.
[i] That there are no existing oil paintings by Horny is reported by his biographer, Walter Scheidig in Franz Horny (Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1954).
[ii] This contrast between Horny’s native style and that of his Nazarine colleagues is pointed out by Hinrich Sieveking in Fuseli to Menzel, exh. cat. (Munich and New York: Prestel, in cooperation with the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, 1998).
[iii] Colin Bailey has attempted to identity this figure by comparing it to other, identified, portraits made by Horny in Olevano. He reports that the seated girl is neither Constantina Baldi or Maria Angela Baldi, members of Horny’s host family in Olevano. He suggests that the model has similar facial features to a portrait of Gionanino Lanciotti that is in the Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden. Colin Bailey, Ashmolean Museum Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings, Volume V, German 19th Century Drawings (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).