Review of Friedrich Franz and Christian Johannes Riepenhausen’s Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva (Frankfurt 1806) [*]
Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1806) 106 (Monday, 5 May 1806), 239–40.
Frankfurt a. M., bei Varrentrapp und Wenner: Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva. In XIV plates by the brothers Franz and Johannes Riepenhausen. With a preface and appended explications. 1806. Folio. (5 Laubthaler)
An inclination for chivalric subjects has reigned for several years in poesy without exerting any noticeable influence on the higher levels of the formative arts. Although previously it was buildings and utensils alone that were occasionally decorated with curlicue ornamental Gothic flourishes, after a unique religious spirit, which one can perhaps most appropriately designate by the name “modern Catholicism,” recently made its way into the subject matter of poetry, it soon also found its way into the formative arts.
Evidence of this spirit initially appeared in the excessive valuation of older, as yet unfinished or coarse products of German, Dutch, Florentine, and other schools of painting. Then came attempts to approximate more closely the Christian simplicity and pious innocence of those pictures once again, though now executed with more sophisticated taste, and with all the aids of cultivated art. —
Probably no artist, however, has yet worked toward this goal with such focus as have the Messieurs Riepenhausen in the work before us here, a work in part meriting a warm reception because of genuine merits, and in part certainly justified in anticipating such a reception by the public insofar as it is commensurate with what is already a widespread and indeed growing inclination for such.
A pagan sensibility cultivated by the Greek muses, on the other hand, will not be satisfied here, finding as it will that the boundaries within which this ascendant artistic taste moves seem too restrictive. That said, however, neither it is presently our intention to measure this piece against a standard deriving from the highest masterpieces of antiquity and modernity, since it cannot be said that such works actually served as models here, nor do we desire to argue with Messieurs Riepenhausen about their taste, to which end a different investigation would then be required. We are instead inclined to acknowledge for now the manner and taste, or, if one prefers, the style and intention of this work, and examine instead solely the characteristics that depend less on the judgment of the artist than on his competence.
In that respect, let us say first of all that the work in the fourteen copper plates seems clean, delicate, and completely commensurate with respect to the treatment. For even though the portrayals consist merely in outlines, the whole nonetheless can be perceived quite without confusion in all its details. One must certainly forgive some of the more conventional elements, without which such monograms cannot easily do.
Second, the arrangements of folds and the form and positioning of the figures exhibits an element of pleasing cordiality or indeed even of elegance; we found absolutely nothing distorted, forced, or unpleasant. Third, the heads are for the most part quite animated; several have charming features, e.g., Golo and the elder of the two shepherds in no. 3.
Moreover, one finds an excellent portrayal of the character Schmerzenreich in no. 14,
other dignified countenances such as Bonifatius in no. 2,
Dago in no. 5,
and Count Siegfried in no. 12 etc.
On the other hand, probably no really successful expression of emotion can be adduced. Fourth, considerable diligence is attested by the embellishments of flowers, herbs, clothing accessories, and similar things, all of which casts a pleasing sense of completeness over the whole. The extremely graceful landscape elements in nos. 3 and 13 deserve special praise [no. 3 see above]:
Fifth, in no. 6, where Mary appears to St. Genviève, Messieurs Riepenhausen display an excellent talent for artistic organization, whose further cultivation we herewith certainly encourage.
These elements all betray a striving for that which is pleasing, and no one would deny that our artists’ intentions have indeed succeeded in this respect. Nor do the demands which by far most aficionados make on works of art demand anything higher or more powerful than we see rendered here. Flaxmann’s outlines, have, after all, and on the basis of similar merit, received rapturous applause in Germany; hence why should the Riepenhausens’ outlines find less favor? —
Although Flaxmann’s art, at least in his illustrations of Homer and Aeschylus, tilled a considerably more fertile field, our own countrymen should be at no disadvantage for having focused with love and diligence on a different field, one in which undeniably beautiful, if less varied fruits are to be harvested.
The annotations, which are quite easy to read, relate in a brief and embellished style the events in the life of St. Genviève. Those who in the meantime have been seized by a more lively interest in the outline illustrations of Messieurs Riepenhausen will best be able to develop an understanding of the artists’ goals and intentions from Ludwig Tieck’s fine poetic piece [Das Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva, in Tieck’s Romantische Dichtungen, 2 vols. (Jena 1799–1800), 2:1–330].
Finally we must not fail to mention the printing and paper of this piece are of exquisite beauty.
Weimar Friends of the Arts
In his letter to Caroline on 1 June 1806 (letter 416c), Lorenz Oken relates from Göttingen
I nonetheless sit here quite contentedly, indeed, almost as if in heaven, and occasionally cast a glance at the outline illustrations of St. Geneviève — copied by Riepenhausen after Tiek. Most of the plates touch me exceedingly, especially as I am Catholic in such a childlike fashion and daily become even more so through outward influences the more I swim around, or am immersed, in the insipid waters of Protestantism.
See the gallery of the entirety of the Riepenhausens’ illustrations in order:
St. Geneviève of Brabant. The story of this saint has furnished the subject for poems, plays, and pictures which are anything but religious in their character. But there are many representations in art of her romantic life and sufferings.
She was the wife of Count Siegfried, who was led by his steward to believe her to be wanting in fidelity to himself and her marriage vows. He ordered her to be executed, bụt those charged with the task of putting her to death, left her alone in the forest. She gave birth to a child, which was nursed by a white doe.
A number of years having passed, her husband, while hunting, came to her abode. Explanations made plain her innocence. The steward was really put to death, while the wife was restored to her home and happiness.
Concerning Ludwig Tieck’s play, see John Robertson, A History of German Literature (London 1902), 424:
Tieck’s most ambitious works, as a dramatic poet, are the two “Märchendramen,” Leben und Tod der heiligen Genoveva (1799) and Kaiser Octavianus (1804). The “Stürmer und Dränger” Maler Müller had, it will be remembered, dramatised the story of the unhappy Pfalzgräfin Genoveva [Genevieve of Brabant], who, in her husband’s absence, awakens a passion in the faithless Golo, and dies the victim of his revenge. Müller’s play came into Tieck’s hands in MS. in 1797, and undoubtedly suggested the subject to him; but there is no resemblance between the two works except in a few lines of a song.
Tieck’s Genoveva is a typically Romantic poem; it is a drama without action. The story is unrolled as a tapestry over which plays the changing light of all the influences — Shakespeare, Calderon, religious mysticism — which had moulded the poet’s individuality. The language, although defective in dramatic qualities, is resplendent with music and imagery; and wherever the scene may be — on the battlefield, in a castle-dungeon or in a garden flooded with moonlight — it is invariably enveloped in a soft Romantic haze. Back.
Translation © 2014 Doug Stott