Johann Friedrich Overbeck
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Nina, 1825-30
Pencil on white paper
20.5 x 18.3 cm
Bequeathed by Dr. Grete Ring, 1954
WA 1954.70.128

The fineness and restraint of this pencil drawing evokes metalpoint, a medium characterized by great linear purity and precision. The technique of drawing with a metal stylus, usually silver, on a surface prepared with opaque watercolor or gesso, produces lines that are sharp, legible, and consistent in tone and width. Unlike chalk or crayon, the medium cannot be blended or smudged, and yields little texture, leaving behind only a thin ribbon of metallic deposit.[i] Here, Overbeck mimics the aesthetic of metalpoint in graphite, laying down an even, controlled line to emphasize the contours of forms. Delicate modeling is achieved through careful hatching rather than by rubbing with the side of the pencil and, as is typical of metalpoint drawings, the work is intimately scaled. Its minute detail calls out for close inspection: in areas such as the eyebrows, there is the sense that each hair has been meticulously and lovingly rendered.

Metalpoint fell out of common practice in the 16th century, as artists grew to favor materials that allow broader, more spontaneous mark-making. Overbeck’s use of a modern tool—the graphite pencil—to imitate the effects of an archaic technique is emblematic of his lifelong revivalist tendencies. A founding member of the Lukasbund in Vienna, and a leading figure of its successor group based in Rome, the Nazarenes, Overbeck devoted his entire career to recovering the artistic aims and means of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. For Overbeck, this meant, most fundamentally, returning art to the service of religion. The Nazarenes objected to the modern commodification of the art object and aspired to create public ecclesiastical works that would articulate the highest values of the community. This desire to provide moral and religious inspiration directly to the people informed the Nazarene effort to revive fresco painting (like metalpoint, a technique associated with the Renaissance). Besides religious history painting, the Nazarenes also produced portraits—of which this drawing of Overbeck’s wife is an example—but these were conceived as personal works, intended for private contemplation and remembrance, and not for sale. Just as the Nazarenes hoped to elevate the goals of art, they also sought to purify its means. Defying the trend of the previous two hundred years towards greater illusionistic and painterly effects, Nazarene art is characterized by still, symmetrical compositions, the flat application of paint, and the subordination of color to line. [ii] Overbeck preferred the simplicity and sincerity of Raphael to the voluptuousness of Titian and Veronese.[iii]  In his own art, he aimed to reveal the essential, ‘spiritual,’ truth of things, rather than imitate the merely sensual effects of external appearance.

This modest drawing thus encapsulates the most important priorities of the artist. Although a portrait, the work has the sacred tone of a devotional icon; it presents the female form not as a source of sensual pleasure, but rather as the embodiment of piety and virtue. Seated in a distinctly Marian pose—eyes downcast and hands gathered demurely in her lap—Nina has only a muted corporeal presence. That the figure is sitting is suggested not by the body itself, but rather by the position of the arms and hands. In contrast to the soft folds of Nina’s voluminous sleeves, which have been carefully, even elaborately, rendered from life, the gathers that define her skirt fall straight down, as if the figure underneath were actually absent. This curious denial of the body brings to mind the fact that as a young man, the chaste Overbeck refused to draw from female models, claiming that “I would prefer to draw less correctly than certainly damage my feelings, which are the artist’s greatest treasure.”[iv]

Overbeck presumably felt it acceptable, however, for a husband to draw his own wife, as several portraits of Anna (Nina) Hartl exist. In each, Nina’s distinct features—the high-bridged nose, large forehead and pointed chin—are recognizable but have been visually purified through Overbeck’s rigorously linear style. Overbeck thus achieves a conventionalized, refined likeness of his wife that tells us little of the sitter’s individual personality or social status. Unadorned by jewelry or lace, Nina’s dress appears contemporary, although its extreme plainness makes it difficult to identify with a particular period or class. With her smooth, unblemished skin and neat, cap-like head of hair, Nina exudes the eternal composure of a Renaissance marble bust. She seems maidenly, younger than her actual age of at least thirty-five,[v] further evidence of Overbeck’s efforts to idealize his model. The generic quality of the figure is made clear when one compares this portrait to representations of women that Overbeck created long before he met Nina in 1818. The resemblance between the current portrait and the Madonna-like image of an “ideal spouse” included in his Portrait of Franz Pforr (1810) is particularly striking. In a letter written to his father two years before that painting and ten years before he met his wife, Overbeck imagined his ideal partner as “an earnest yet gentle being…with dark hair, and only the head and the hands visible; at its heart something holy, unearthly, in its stance and gestures something mysterious—in short, a being that one could not only love but revere, and the sight of which would arouse the holiest of feelings.”[vi] These comments could be taken to explain this very portrait, which moves quickly from physical to spiritual description, and seems to want to deny the materiality of both its subject matter and the medium of its making.

[i] My characterization of metalpoint is based on firsthand analysis of silverpoint drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and information from James Watrous, The Craft of Old-Master Drawings (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1957).

[ii] My summary of Nazarine aims is indebted to Lionel Gossman’s essay, “Unwilling Moderns: The Nazarene Painters of the Nineteenth Century,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture 2, issue 3 (Autumn 2003) <> November1, 2003.

[iii] In 1908, after a visit to the reopened Imperial art collection in the Belvedere Palace, Overbeck’s close friend and fellow Lukasbruder Franz Pforr reported to his guardian that “Works by Tintoretto, Veronese, Maratti, even many by the Caracci, Correggio, Guido, and Titian that had once filled us [Pforr and Overbeck] with admiration, now made a feeble impression on us. It seemed to us that a cold heart lay behind their bold brushstrokes and striking color effects and that the painter's highest aim had been to excite a voluptuous sensibility.” Quoted in Gossman from Margaret Howitt, Friedrich Overbeck. Sein Leben und Schaffen. Nach seinen Briefen und andern Documenten des handschriftlichen Nachlass geschildert, 2 vols., ed. Franz Binder (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1886; reprint Bern: Herbert Lang, 1971).

[iv] Quoted in Mitchell Benjamin,Frank, German Romantic Painting Redefined: Nazarine tradition and the narratives of Romanticism (Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2001), 62.

[v] According to Colin Bailey, the watermark of this drawing confirms that it is from no earlier than 1825. Anna (Nina) Hartl was born in Vienna in 1790. Colin Bailey, Ashmolean Museum Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings, Volume V, German 19th Century Drawings (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

[vi] Quoted in Gossman, from Howitt.

Melissa Ho

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