Wilhelm Schlegel’s Review of
Charles Antoine de Saqui-Sannes, using the pseudonym S. S. Roland,
Söder. Par S. S. Roland (Göttingen 1797). 216 pages. 8vo.
Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1798) 263 (Monday, 3 September 1798) 481–85
(Sämmtliche Werke 11:310–16)
The art gallery of Baron von Brabeck at Söder near Hildesheim enjoys an extensive and deserved reputation. Six years ago, Herr von Ramdohr was already providing connoisseurs and enthusiasts with a closer acquaintance of the pieces in this exquisite collection with his critical catalogue [Beschreibung der Gemälde-Galerie des Freiherrn von Brabek zu Hildesheim (Hannover 1792)].
The initiator of the present piece is a French emigré who, after losing his fatherland, found both a source of assistance in his present situation in his talent for painting, which he previously pursued simply for pleasure, as well as a refuge at the estate of Baron von Brabeck, this generous patron of the arts. He has engaged this opportunity to the considerable advantage of the public with this equally eloquent and instructive description of the castle Söder and its surroundings, which he here provides in letters to a friend in England.
This information concerning the scope of this piece’s content already demonstrates that the author has by no means merely produced something that, given the excellent work of Herr von Ramdohr, one might just as easily do without. The latter restricts himself to the gallery alone, but does provide a complete index of all pieces and information about the size of each. At that time, the presentation and arrangement was completely different. The paintings themselves were located in the house of the Baron in town, while the actual furnishings and accoutrements of the castle Söder, which he renovated into a quite tasteful country estate, though primarily for the gallery itself, was not yet finished at the time.
Travelers, who will be visiting Söder with increasing frequency and for whose convenience a new inn has been established nearby [Söder Heidekrug], will find Herr Roland’s work all the more useful as a guide because it is written in French and, moreover, focuses attention not only on the works of art themselves, but also on the layout of the castle and on the exquisite taste with which it has been executed and on the simple splendor of its ornamentation and decoration. Estate owners who are perhaps not in a position to devote to art as rich a temple as has Baron von Brabeck, but who would like to brighten up their own country retreats and animate them through beautiful harmonization of all parts, will find in the example of such a connoisseur useful hints for applying the same principles to their own situations.
One particular desideratum would be to follow the indefatigable zeal with which he has been keen to incorporate indigent handiwork and those particular arts situated at the interface between the mechanical or functional and that which is actually beautiful in the narrower sense. The enthusiasm of German craftsmen all too often sags from a lack of encouragement, since everything that is allegedly delicate and refined is generally imported from elsewhere, even though German craftsmen, given equally prosperous circumstances, leisure, and training through appropriate models might perhaps quickly even surpass foreign craftsmen. Of course, not everyone who has a castle built or decorated possesses the requisite insight, and even less the requisite patience to guide such craftsmen himself and to turn uninformed villagers virtually into genuine artists.
Herr von Brabeck has succeeded in doing precisely this through the most persistent efforts and has in the process maintained a genuine enthusiasm for beauty that maintains its ardor even amid the most painstaking attention to detail. The most artistic carvings, all wooden inlay work, even the marble architectonic decorations, it has all been done by indigent craftsmen; an Italian was engaged only for the plasterwork simply because no one could be found in Germany. The author quite rightly suspects that it is only because of the lack of materials that this art, along with higher forms of sculpture, is having trouble flourishing here.
In general, however, he arrives at an unacceptably low estimation of the state of the arts in Germany and of what is being done to support them, an error that might quite naturally arise during a sojourn in Lower Saxony; the author does not seem to have visited Dresden, Berlin, and Vienna. By contrast, however, this reviewer does concur completely with his severe but fair assessment of the false illusion of false English taste and with his critique of the flood of English copper engravings, the latter of which has already become commercially disadvantageous for us. He says much too little in remarking that cet art n’est point étranger à l’Allemagne [this art form is not at all unknown in Germany]. Indeed, how many English examples could hold up next to the best pieces of someone like Müller? We are also totally their equal now with respect to perfection in the lighter pointed style.
The room decorations at Söder are quite simple, and in those where paintings are placed for viewing is sooner serious than cheerful. An extremely insightful organization. The impression generally elicited by surrounding splendor is quite different from that amid which works of art should be viewed, except that it blinds and distracts the eye in a physical sense, such as was even the case in the splendid villa of Herr Hope at Haarlem. It is for precisely this reason that Herr von Brabeck has excluded arabesques from the entire castle as well, arabesques of the sort amid which one so easily becomes accustomed thoughtlessly to view the drawing arts.
The most characteristic feature of the collection is an element of severity and sophistication that accompanies the actual choice of pieces, something one often seeks in vain in some of the grand, more famous galleries. Because Herr von Brabeck, rather than allowing himself to be guided by public opinion, relied on his own, independent judgment in choosing excellent works by less familiar masters over inferior ones recommended by someone with a respected name, his collection contains pieces not only unique in their own fashion, but also truly rare.
The paintings are arranged not according to school, as is usually the case, but according to genre. One room has portraits, two have historical pieces and also include society paintings, another has landscapes, yet another architectural paintings and perspectives, and finally one specially decorated room has cabinet pieces. Genre types of which only a few are represented are then inserted in various places, with several still-life pieces found among the historical paintings, and several flower pieces among the landscapes.
Although the author specifically refers to only the most noteworthy pieces, he does try to portray in a more vivid fashion what he describes, glides easily from the one to the other by means of fluid turns of phrase, and animates his cohesive presentation by the addition of general comments here and there. He lingers longer with some of the paintings that Herr von Ramdohr does not describe, and vice versa. One is tempted to compare assessments when both offer comments on the same objects. Let us for our part extract but a few examples.
Two portraits, one by Bernardo Strozzi, the other by Tiberio Tinelli, are to be reckoned among the gallery’s prized pieces, overshadowing everything else in the way of excellent portraits there. One society piece by Karl van Mander, a piece whose rarity did not escape Herr von Ramdohr, is described more fully and compared favorably to even the best pieces by Gerhard Dow. An extraordinary, beautiful piece by this master is there, namely, Tobias being healed from blindness. Although the size of the painting enhances its rarity, it might also cast doubt on its initiator, with respect to which Herr von Ramdohr does not take as resolute a position as does the author of the present work.
It is certain that various Dutch painters whose cabinet pieces are the only paintings one is accustomed to seeing, did at times paint in a larger format; one need only recall the bull by Potter in the former gallery of the hereditary governor. It seems as if the deciding factor was not any element of mistrust in their own powers, but rather the taste of their countrymen and perhaps their own inclination for the smaller format. One does not find any life-size Rembrandt in the extremely wealthy private Dutch collections. Those artists genuinely found in their beloved domestic vertrekjes etc. an object whose essentials could with expressive strokes be captured quite well in a smaller space. Why should a farmer by Teniers or Ostade be painted larger? —
A Saint Catherine of Sienna, concerning which Herr von Ramdohr is a bit uncertain, is here attributed to Guercino, and the assessment of a learned artist who passed on his remarks to the present reviewer confirms this attribution. The same applies to the attribution of the nuptials of Saint Catherine to Tizian, and a drawing with gold color against a brown background, depicting a sacrificial processional, to Raphael, which in Herr von Ramdohr’s work bear the names Palma Vechio and Giulio Romano. The aforementioned artist recognizes here the apostle Paul, to whom one intends to present an offering, a scene which Raphael executed in the cartoons. Otherwise the gallery also possesses a precious cabinet piece by Raphael and yet another by Correggio, both unquestionably genuine.
Herr Roland still considers the former to be a depiction of the worship of Simeon, which Herr von Ramdohr, who had an outline engraving made of it, considers incorrect, primarily because Simeon and his companion are clothed in the garments of the more recent church, though this observation probably does not constitute a decisive objection. The author maintains that it is easier to copy Raphael than Correggio. The present reviewer has seen attempts at both fall considerably short under unskilled hands; should the difficulties — excepting where Correggio succeeds in grand but singular fashion in his more daring attempts, e.g., his Nativity (Holy Night), which even he himself would probably not have painted the same a second time — not be approximately the same on both sides?
One can perhaps provide a better impression of the overall collection by pointing out that amid the treasures of Italian art of the sort just discussed, the collection enjoys an even greater wealth with respect to the Dutch school. We would like to adduce more of the author’s remarks concerning, e.g., the reasons why the charming Italian landscape has generated fewer landscape painters than has the Netherlands; or his characterization of Ruysdael, etc.
After an overview of the gallery, the author describes the as yet unfinished preparations for establishing an English garden around the castle itself, in which connection he also sharply criticizes the garden at Wörlitz [one of the first English-style gardens in German, established between 1769 and 1773 near Dessau]. Although one can easily enough accept a letter on agriculture as a bonus in this work, when the author sets about defending the cultural situation in Germany against unjust assessments of foreigners, one must concede that his good intentions are simply not up to the task. German literature either needs no apology at all, or it deserves a more powerful one; and the offense the author takes on occasion of the words “philosophy” and “Enlightenment” — which, after all, are as indispensable as the disciplines themselves — must be excused by the author’s own personal circumstances.
The same author has published a play related at least to a certain extent with the work discussed above, namely,
La manie des arts, comédie en quatre actes. Par M. S..d S. Roland, peintre. Hannovre 1797.
This piece was written at the behest of Baron von Brabeck; the initial concept derives from incidents that really did occur in his dealings with the artists to whom he provided work. These initial incidents yielded to a freer treatment of the material, and Herr von Brabeck was delighted to see such enthusiasm for art portrayed through comical and yet always sophisticated exaggeration. The author is so immersed in the difficulties, and expresses himself so modestly concerning his work, that a severe critique of such a societal farce would be both inappropriate and superfluous. The action became about as interesting as was possible with such material without the usual assistance of a love intrigue. The verses are light, and several situations truly comical. Among others, the scene between the servants of the two art enthusiasts, who also practice their art, praise each other’s skill, show and critique their works, and in the process almost come to blows, would play very well indeed on stage.