In late 2007, the National Gallery of Art acquired 120 German old master drawings from one of the finest private collections in Europe, assembled by Wolfgang Ratjen (1943–1997), who lived primarily in Munich and Liechtenstein. One of the most perceptive collectors of the last century, Ratjen selected his drawings with great energy and discernment over the course of thirty years.
The drawings, created between 1580 and 1900, epitomize the work of artists from German- speaking lands (Germany and Austria as well as parts of Switzerland and central Europe). Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drawings of religious and mythological subjects echo the courtly taste for sophistication and elegance. An impressive selection of dynamic, ornate watercolors for church ceilings and altarpieces expresses the piety and faith of the baroque and rococo eras. The later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are represented with romantic visions of the natural world. Directly observed studies and portraits characterize the realism that followed.
The Ratjen Collection includes works of extraordinary quality and rarity by draftsmen such as the early seventeenth-century artist Adam Elsheimer, the Bavarian landscape painter Johann Georg von Dillis, the romantics Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and the realist Adolph Menzel. The collection as a whole complements the National Gallery's holdings of German drawings, which are already strong in works from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early modern era. With this acquisition, made possible by the generosity of a dozen donors, the Gallery now has the finest and most comprehensive survey of German graphic art outside Europe.
This rare example of draftsmanship by Elsheimer, an artist well known for the shadowy atmosphere of his small paintings on copper, illustrates a tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The boy Stellio mocked the goddess Ceres, the figure at left, who retaliated by turning him into a lizard. The indistinct, mysterious lighting is the result of Elsheimer's painstaking technique: he first drew the figures in black on brown prepared paper, then added increasingly brighter areas of colors, ending with opaque touches of white to convey the illumination of the torch held by the old woman.
Apollo, god of sun and music, prevails with his stringed instrument against the simpler pipes of Pan, guardian of shepherds and their flocks, in a musical contest judged by the mountain god Tmolus high on the rock. King Midas, standing to the right, objects to the decision and points instead to Pan as the victor. In retaliation for his mistake, Apollo gives Midas the ears of an ass, here placed on his head by a descending putto. This popular subject from Ovid's Metamorphoses may be understood as an allegory on artistic judgment, emphasizing "high" art over lowly genres, or the frequent misunderstanding of art by wealthy patrons.
Picturesquely situated not far from Rome, Tivoli was one of Italy's earliest tourist destinations. It was especially popular with artists, for it offered both ancient monuments and the spectacle of waterfalls. Beich, who spent a decade in Italy, was here less concerned with a detailed, naturalistic description of the site than with the rhythmic arrangement of light and dark areas. His masterful use of white heightening conveys the sense of rushing, foaming water.
This preliminary drawing for the ceiling fresco of a Bavarian church shows the most celebrated element in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome: the baldachin designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) for the high altar, below which is located the tomb of Saint Peter. Baroque and rococo ceiling frescoes often sought theatrical and illusionistic effects. Here the linear perspective, with twisting columns of the baldachin converging toward the top of the dome, creates the dazzling illusion of grand architectural space seen from below. Steps leading up to the canopy enhance the sense of height and depth.
This Indian rhinoceros, nicknamed Clara, was a European sensation and traveled from city to city, provoking great curiosity and amazement. The drawing is the most significant of six that Ridinger made of her in Augsburg, where she stayed for nearly a month in 1748. Ridinger's was the first realistic depiction of the animal, with precisely rendered skin hanging in folds or thickened like armor. But above all, Ridinger presented Clara as a gentle creature, contradicting the prevailing view of the rhinoceros, promulgated from antiquity, as a hot-tempered, aggressive beast.
According to the Old Testament story, Habakkuk was grabbed by an angel of the Lord while on his way to delivering a meal to reapers in his field. The angel carried him off to Babylon to give the food instead to Daniel, who was imprisoned in a lion's den. Baumgartner surrounded the story with an ornate frame into which are placed small genre scenes related to preparing, cooking, and consuming food. The design was engraved as part of a cycle on the times of day; it symbolizes midday.
This composition is a preparatory drawing made for an engraved series featuring fashionable amusements and games. The final prints also included moralizing captions, and they proved so popular that the designs were copied into other media such as paintings, wall hangings, and porcelains.
Zingg's virtuosic showpiece is a visual jest: what appears at first glance to be the sky is actually another landscape, upside down. When the drawing is turned on its head, the same effect occurs. The artist may have been studying possible landscape foregrounds and simply began drawing them, each from a different side, on the same sheet. Zingg then connected the two sides by working out details, even the play of light, with great refinement, using the monochrome palette that became fashionable in late eighteenth-century German landscape drawings.
In the eighteenth century, a heightened appreciation of natural beauty turned scenic areas into tourist attractions. Even royalty traveled to marvel at the wonders of nature: the finely dressed couple at left are the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III and Queen Luise. Together with family members and attendants, they climbed the Hesselberg, a spur of the Jura mountains, to enjoy the sunset and views to the distant Alps. This is Dillis' best-known work, probably commissioned by the queen. The highly finished drawing has attracted attention both for its subject matter and for the freshness of colors and sensitivity to details of nature.
The medium of watercolor flourished in Munich at the beginning of the nineteenth century thanks to the efforts of landscape artists such as Johann Georg von Dillis and Wagenbauer. The latter was among the first to take the foothills of the Bavarian Alps as his subject matter, searching for scenic motifs such this small, remote lake, known as the Blue Pool, on hiking trips. Originally formed through a series of landslides that dammed a river, the lake no longer exists; it was filled in with sediment by another landslide in 2005.
Before his early death cut short the promise of a brilliant career, Runge had hoped to establish a new foundation for the art of landscape, using allegory to comprehend man's place in nature and in the divine order of the cosmos. The lily — symbol of innocence and purity — was one of Runge's favorite motifs. Dynamic, swelling lines capture the organic vitality of this flower, which opens and closes with the emergence and disappearance of light. The stalk displays blooms, a bud, and a stem with pistil after the petals have fallen off, offering a reflection on nature's process of growth and decay.
Friedrich was the most important German landscape artist of the nineteenth century. His work epitomizes north German romanticism, which was distinguished by a spiritual attachment to nature. This watercolor is one of his finest examples in the medium, showing an exquisite sense of coloring and light, especially in the ethereal blue of the sky and the delicate rendering of fog clustered in the folds of the mountain. The work suggests meditative stillness at a hushed moment before dawn. Empty of human figures, the scene nonetheless contrasts the human activity evident in the plowed field with the immensity of mountains and sky.
For several months in the winter of 1816–1817, Olivier vied with friends in making precise drawings of dried leaves. Although drawing leaves was a routine assignment for students of landscape in the academies of the day, Olivier’s study is not a mere exercise in capturing a particular species; it is an exquisitely rendered, autonomous work of art that preserves the fragile beauty of the leaves before their disintegration.
Schnorr belonged to a German artistic fraternity in Rome called the Nazarenes who wanted to renew the art of monumental wall and altar paintings as well as biblical illustration. Among Schnorr's numerous drawings for the Bible, this is perhaps his finest. He copied it several times and used it to make a painting, now in the National Gallery, London.
Although the nocturnal encounter between a knight on horseback and a radiant, floating fairy seems to conjure up a literary source, the scene was likely the artist's own poetic invention. Schwind used increasingly lighter shades of brown ink and the white of the paper to create a dreamy, luminous effect. Interest in fairy tales, as well as the chivalric Middle Ages, was strong in the romantic era, when the Grimm Brothers gathered and published their collections of German legends and folklore.
From the mid-eighteenth century, excavations of ancient tombs in southern Italy had brought to light large quantities of ceramic vases and other antiquities, which were eagerly collected by Italian residents as well as visitors from other countries. Götzloff rendered the vessels here with archaeological accuracy: several of them have been identified, including the tall amphora painted with two rows of red figures (now in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin). The vase was in the collection of an Austrian baron then living in Naples, who likely commissioned this watercolor as a souvenir of his stay.
Menzel was extremely close to his sister and created countless spontaneous drawings, gouaches, and oil studies of her. The artist masterfully captured the play of light on her bunched-up dress. Emilie is shown in a private moment, unaffected in pose and absorbed in thought. Although Menzel offered his drawings on the market, he kept personal images such as this one.
Menzel made this drawing in preparation for a commissioned life-size portrait of Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke. The artist's notations indicate innumerable details of the unusual rubber coat. The drenched brushstrokes suggest the coat's elasticity as well as the sheen of its surface.
Liebermann emphasized the quiet dignity of a farm family sitting down to a meager meal in a space shared with livestock. Struck by the simplicity and hardship of rural life, the artist frequently turned to the subject of peasants in the first decades of his career. His natural, matter-of-fact manner in portraying them often proved controversial for a public more attuned to sentimental, idealized images of country folk.
The stillness of the young woman absorbed in her own thoughts contrasts strikingly with Leibl's dynamic technique. The artist used dense parallel strokes to model the figure while at the same time creating a vibrant study of light and dark.