Caroline’s Review of Wackenroder and Tieck: Herzensergiessungen

Caroline’s Review of Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders. [*]

Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1797) 46 (Friday, 10 February 1797) 361–65:

Berlin, bei Unger: Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders. 1797. 275 pages. 8vo. With a portrait of Raphael. (20 gr.). [Frontispiece portrait of Raphael:]


The view of the formative arts underlying this pleasant piece is not the usual one found in our age. Hence its anonymous author has also quite justifiably avoided the fashionable language of our day, [1] instead choosing a foreign costume through which to express his innermost feeling for the sacredness and dignity of art in the most animated fashion possible; not even in the preface does he abandon that costume. His intention is to imbue beginning artists and aficionados with his own reverence for the great masters, a reverence bordering on adoration and everywhere emphatically opposing that particular, self-contented presumption of erudition deriving more from an adroit tongue than from the innermost soul, a presumption that confidently scrutinizes the most sublime creations of genius as if the latter really were subject to its jurisdiction.

This much is certain: no one is capable of passing judgment on a work of art before having understood it completely, until having penetrated deeply into the meaning and sensibility of both it and its initiator. Such is not possible, however, except by casting off all vain presumption and surrendering oneself in quiet reflection to a disposition of loving, receptive observation. The personality of a spiritual hermit for whom art, “as something of heavenly origin, is precious in a position right after religion and for whom it becomes a religious love or a beloved religion,” was perhaps the most appropriate available character to evoke the kind of atmosphere necessary for presenting such teachings in a penetrating fashion.

Even a slight element of rapturous enthusiasm cannot appear objectionable if it but be used to counter the proliferating coldness that seeks nothing in art but distraction and sensual pleasure, and indeed in so doing makes it impossible for art to function otherwise in any case. Who will hold it against this simple but warm-hearted religious man for positing on the outside the divine element that in fact can be found only within human beings, and for being so inclined to compare or even mistake the incomprehensible element of artistic enthusiasm with more lofty, direct inspiration? We understand him despite this, and are easily able to translate his language into our own manner of speaking. Moreover, precisely because his language is archaic, it enjoys the charm of novelty.

As fundamentally different the free play of the imagination constituting true artistic enjoyment is from that particular type of devotion that demands teeth-clenching self-abnegation and, as it were, a momentary suspension of earthly existence, one nonetheless cannot deny that at its reinception and during its greatest epoch, contemporary art was intimately associated with religion. It is as if it always requires a religious impulse to stimulate and guide formative artists striving to articulate the ideas of higher natures in the human form. It was popular belief that throughout prompted the otherwordly portrayals within ancient art, and everything distinctive that more recent art has produced in this regard similarly exhibits a religious reference. It was on the remnants of a worship service that itself had contributed excessively to the demise of ancient art that modern art raised itself up, acquiring not only its occupation from it, but also its most sublime objects: Madonnas, Saviors, apostles, and saints.

It is difficult to say what would have filled this position had the revivification of art occurred during a time and amongst peoples where the more rigorous faculty of reason had already rejected all sensuous adornment of a religion directed solely toward the non-sensuous, and where the scale of devotion constructed for human beings in their infinite remove from the deity through the veneration of beneficent beings had already collapsed. If, commensurate with the demand that observers transpose themselves into the world of the poet or artist, we are so inclined even to allow the mythological dreams of antiquity their ethereal existence, why then should we not also, with respect to a work of art, take a more intimate interest in Christian legends and customs that might otherwise be alien to our manner of thinking?

It is in this sense that the word believe is to be understood on page 192, and we thought it important to articulate this perspective explicitly especially for essays such as “Raphael’s Appearance” and “Letter from a Young German Painter in Rome to his Friend in Nürnberg,” since we otherwise fear that readers of a certain ilk will miss that perspective and that amid the current inclination to be on one’s guard against Catholicism neither our good friar’s occupation nor his own tolerance (p. 116) will protect him from the criticism that his love of art exhibits a certain tendency toward Catholicism.

Our author warmly recommends the generally so neglected artist’s biography and in so doing also commends reading Vasari. That said, young artists often do not possess sufficient background to adequately understand this primary source for the history of the most important epoch of modern art; moreover, the study of that source has been made even more complicated and tedious by the annotations, addenda, and corrections of more recent editors, material that is nonetheless indispensable. Neither is Vasari even marginally an exemplary biographer. His encomiums are especially too inclined to get lost in rhetorical vagueness for them to provide for the as yet uninitiated an adequate idea of the character of the piece of art being described. (Such is admittedly even more the case with other, later artist biographers, e.g., Malvasia.) [2]

Both instruction and entertainment would be considerably and equally served by a work containing descriptions of the lives of the most notable artists after Vasari with criticism and engagement of subsequent historical materials in a fashion similar to the way Francesco Francia, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pietro di Cosimo are rejuvenated and revived by vivid portrayals here. A comparison with the Italian original quickly reveals how successfully the author has recast his material through organization, omission, as well as through descriptive features and interspersed observations.

As a sample, let us but cite a few passages from the life of Leonardo, through whose example the author attempts to demonstrate that “the genius of art not unwillingly couples with the serious disposition of Minerva, and that the entire, variously organized image of human science is reflected in beautiful and perfect harmony in a great, open soul, even it that soul be focused on but a single primary striving.” Pages 65–66:

A lively, bright, quick-witted disposition is necessary for learning any of the formative arts, even if such are to portray serious or gloomy subjects; for it is through gradual, laborious work that ultimately a perfect work is to be produced, one pleasing to all the senses, whereas sad, introverted personalities have not the inclination, desire, courage, or constancy to produce. The youth Leonardo da Vinci possessed just such a bright, quick-witted personality; and he zealously worked not only at drawing and color composition, but also in sculpture, and for recreation played the violin and sang pleasing songs.Hence wheresoever his comprehensive mind turned, he was always lightly borne by the muses and graces as their favorite, held hovering aloft in their atmosphere, never, not even in his hours of recreation, touching the ground of quotidian life.

Pages 71–72:

Leonardo understood that the artistic spirit is a flame of a completely different sort than the enthusiasm of poets. It is not a matter of bringing forth wholly from within one’s own sensibility; the artistic sensibility should instead assiduously roam about outside itself, wrapping itself around all the forms of creation with nimble agility, thereby acquiring and saving models and imprints of such in the treasury of the spirit, such that the artist, upon finally commencing work, already finds within himself a world full of the most varied things. Leonardo never went out without taking along his sketch pad, and his desirous eye found everywhere victims for his leisure. Only when one has subjugated everything in one’s surroundings to one’s primary inclination in this way can one genuinely say that one is wholly and completely inflamed and permeated by artistic sensibility.

His death is related with touching simplicity, and the inspired look at Raphael at the end completes the serious impression of the whole. Here we almost missed the sonnet that is the sole remnant of Leonardo’s poetic gifts (because he generally wrote poems all’ improviso, he probably rarely actually committed his poems to paper); though it does not actually concern art, it could nonetheless provide the occasion for attractively presenting precepts for art if one chose to do so poetically in his name and his manner.

The death of Francesco Francia, whose admiration for Raphael allegedly cost him his life, though considerable doubts have been raised in this regard, has been rendered as credibly as possible through its truthful portrayal. We cannot entirely approve of the admixture of historical truth with fiction in the essay “Raphael’s Appearance.” Although Raphael did indeed write the words cited, there is no reference in the passage to a Madonna, but rather to the sea goddess Galatea portrayed in the Farnesina, who, as is well known, is not viewed as one of the figures produced by Raphael’s brush reflecting the loftiest ideals. [3]

Hence the words’ mysterious meaning is also entirely emptied. [4] That an artist raised in the same religion as Raphael, even without any inclination to rapturous enthusiasm, might indeed experience such artistic-religious visions, is also demonstrated from the life of Benvenuto Cellini, where they were, it is true, elicited by extraordinary circumstances (see Die Horen [1796] Stück IX, p. 57ff.). [5] The pages on Michelangelo (pp. 172 ff.) contain a nicely implemented, revealing metaphor.

Among German artists, only Albrecht Dürer is accorded a well-deserved monument. Indeed, his portrayal is composed so wholly in the upright and honorable tone and according to the straightforward customs of his age that the reader genuinely is convincingly transposed there. And even in the larger sense, the author’s writing style acquires uniqueness by virtue of a certain element of venerable archaic simplicity coupled with its illustrative vividness. Otherwise it is evident enough that he has chosen the greatest master of descriptive prose in our language as his model.

Nor does this reviewer at all mention such as a reproach; striving to attain a fundamental resemblance with that which one recognizes as the best, and that which one could not recognize as such without as certain level of cultivation oneself, is something quite different from chasing mere externalities of mannerism, and even more different from borrowing isolated ideas and expressions. In several short poems that make no claims to artistic correctness, there breathes a genuine, warm feeling that quite disposes one to read them in just the position they here occupy.

The notion of portraying paintings through the device of introducing specifically juxtaposed persons who then speak each in his own turn, is quite original and might pleasingly lend itself to certain other situations as well; [6] although the two implementations of this idea (pp. 91–96) are quite pleasing in their naiveté, more care might perhaps have been given to form.

The only piece in the collection with no connection to the formative arts is the story of an unhappy musician tormented his entire life by “the bitter dissonance between his inborn, ethereal enthusiasm, on the one hand, and the earthly share in life attaching to every human being, on the other, a share that daily, and violently, drags each of us down from any such rapturous enthusiasm.”

In this story, the reader’s soul is painfully and movingly inculcated with the truth that independence of character constitutes one of the indispensable requisites of any artist, so that he might be capable of resolutely overcoming the adversity deriving from reality itself, which one cannot always escape, and in turn maintain his freedom of spirit amid manifold dependency rather than vacillating between fantastical, overwrought emotion and sickly enervation. The author leaves us with the prospect of a second part, to contain assessments of several individual works of art, a task for which a loving imagination, according to the words of Michelangelo:

—  l'affettuosa fantasia,
Che l'arte mi fece idolo e monarca, [7] 

better justifies an author, in our opinion, than does trenchant, observant, but also often deprecating coldness. We would very much wish that the reception this present piece enjoys will prompt him to further exercise his unmistakable talent for portrayal, and we doubt such all the less insofar the tasteful external appearance of this book cannot but commend it to the attention of readers not yet familiar with it.


[*] Footnotes are those of the present editor. Back.

[1] The authors were Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, Tieck contributing four essays (in whole or in part), Wackenroder fourteen. The book has been translated by Edward Mornin as Outpourings of an art-loving Friar (New York 1975). Back.

[2] Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616–93). Back.

[3] Villa Farnesina, suburban Renaissance villa on the Via della Lungara, in the district of Trastevere in Rome; the fresco by Raphael is “The Triumph of Galatea” (1512):


Caroline’s slight barb here may be alluding to Galatea’s half-naked appearance in that fresco. Back.

[4] A letter Raphael allegedly wrote to Count Baldassare Castiglione includes comments on his figure of Galatea. The letter, presented by Lodovico Dolce in 1554 and first published in 1582, has become central to the understanding of Raphael. The original text of this passage reads (text and translation: Giovanni Pietro Bellori [1613–96], The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. A. S. Wohl, H. Wohl, T. Montanari [Cambridge 2005] 64):

Per dipingere una bella, me bisogneria veder piu belle, con questa condizione, che V. S. si trovasse con meco a far scelta del meglio. Ma essendo carestia e di buoni giudici, et di belle donne, io mi servo di certa Idea, che mi viene in mente (In order to paint one beauty I would need to see several beauties, on condition that Your Lordship be with me to select the best. But as there is a dearth of good judges and of beautiful women, I make use of a certain Idea that comes into my mind).

According to Wackenroder’s abbreviated version of the passage in question, Raphael allegedly remarks:

Essendo carestia di belle donne, io mi servo di certa idea che me viene al mente (But as there is a dearth of beautiful women, I make use of a certain idea that comes into my mind).

Wackenroder, who includes the original Italian in a footnote, translates in his text: “Da man so wenig schöne weibliche Bildungen sieht, so halte ich mich an ein gewisses Bild im Geiste, welches in meine Seele kommt,” Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders [Berlin 1797] 15–16). Quite apart from Wackenroder’s translation (e.g., mente as Seele), his substitution of the Madonna for Galatea has also otherwise prompted a lengthy critical history. Back.

[5] “Benvenuto Cellini. Fortsetzung,” Die Horen (1796) 7, no. 9, 1–71; Die Horen had published several installments of Benvenuto Cellini’s (1500–71) autobiography. In the pasage cited by Caroline (chapter CXXII according to the numbering in John Addington Symonds’s translation, The Life of Benvenuto Cellini, vol. 2 [New York 1906] here 62–64), Cellini, in prison, petitions Christ to “grant me the favour of knowing by divine inspiration what sin I was so sorely expiating,”, whereupon he experiences a vision involving the sun, described in part in the following passage:

I opened them wide, and gazing steadfastly at the sun, exclaimed: “Oh, my sun, for whom I have passionately yearned! Albeit your rays may blind me, I do not wish to look on anything again but this!”

So I stayed awhile with my eyes fixed steadily on him; and after a brief space I beheld in one moment the whole might of those great burning rays fling themselves upon the left side of the sun; so that the orb remained quite clear without its rays, and I was able to contemplate it with vast delight. It seemed to me something marvellous that the rays should be removed in that manner.

Then I reflected what divine grace it was which God had granted me that morning, and cried aloud: “Oh, wonderful Thy power! oh, glorious Thy virtue! How far greater is the grace which Thou art granting me than that which I expected!” The sun without his rays appeared to me to be a bath of the purest molten gold, neither more nor less.

While I stood contemplating this wondrous thing, I noticed that the middle of the sphere began to swell, and the swollen surface grew, and suddenly a Christ upon the cross formed itself out of the same substance as the sun. He bore the aspect of divine benignity, with such fair grace that the mind of man could not conceive the thousandth part of it; and while I gazed in ecstasy, I shouted: “A miracle! a miracle! O God! O clemency Divine! O immeasurable Goodness! what is it Thou hast deigned this day to show me!”

While I was gazing and exclaiming thus, the Christ moved toward that part where his rays were settled, and the middle of the sun once more bulged out as it had done before; the boss expanded, and suddenly transformed itself into the shape of a most beautiful Madonna, who appeared to be sitting enthroned on high, holding her child in her arms with an attitude of the greatest charm and a smile upon her face.

On each side of her was an angel, whose beauty far surpasses man’s imagination. I also saw within the rondure of the sun, upon the right hand, a figure robed like a priest; this turned its back to me, and kept its face directed to the Madonna and the Christ. All these things I beheld, actual, clear, and vivid, and kept returning thanks to the glory of God as loud as I was able. The marvellous apparition remained before me little more than half a quarter of an hour: then it dissolved, and I was carried back to my dark lair. Back.

[6] Caroline and Wilhelm Schlegel implemented precisely this device in their piece on the paintings in the Dresden gallery, namely, “Die Gemählde. Ein Gespräch von W.,” in Athenaeum (1799) 39–151 (Sämmtliche Werke 9:3–101; Kritische Schriften 2:145–252). Back.

[7] “The affectionate fantasy, which made me an idol and a monarch.” Back.

Translation © 2012 Doug Stott