The Comical Art of Carl Spitzweg

Carl Spitzweg (1808 – 1885) was a German painter of the Biedermeier period (1815 – 1848) who presented his subjects from curiously comical perspectives. Largely self-taught, Spitzweg captured the Biedermeier trend of a new middle-class enjoying their new artistic or intellectual leisurely pursuits at or close to their comfortable homes and in the background of the country’s growing urbanisation, industrialisation and relative political stability. His paintings of incredible detail, colour and humour are considered the most significant to appear in that period.

I. The Poor Poet [1839]

Carl Spitzweg loved to satirise men who pursue artistic professions. This painting, which can be viewed as both deeply sympathetic and humorous, presents the fact that “poetry does not pay, showing a “poor poet” who is so engrossed in his world of verse and imagination (probably calculating iambic or trochaic meters on his fingers) that he is seemingly both oblivious and indifferent to his pitiful surroundings. He has neither a proper bed nor table, his umbrella serves him as a cover from the rain water that is most certainly leaking through the roof, and his papers have just recently been burned to produce warmth. And yet, hefty tomes of literature are by his side, a quill is in his mouth and his mind is on the verse. I particularly love the contrast between the soft, abnormally large, white pillow that perhaps stands for the poet’s untouchable realm of dreams and lofty aspirations in which he is only too comfortable, and his dingy and dirty surroundings (in which he should be uncomfortable). Spitzweg painted three versions of this painting, two of which are almost identical. One of these “identical” works was irrevocably stolen in 1989, while another can still be seen at Neue Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

II. The Butterfly Hunter [1840]

Spitzweg, being a painter of leisure, captured here one of his “eccentrics”, this time, a butterfly hunter. The comedy here is that this seemingly very well-equipped hunter is so unprepared for what he sees in front of him – two gigantic butterflies. He is obviously amazed, and the comical effect is enhanced by him holding in his hand a very small butterfly net. Spitzweg may be implying here that nature is much more elusive and wondrous than any man of his time suspects and is prepared to face.

III. The Intercepted Love Letter [1855]

This courtship scene is so full of comic hints as to the personalities, actions and consequences depicted that it is like a little chapter of some novel on the life in a small provincial town. In this paintings, a young man is lowering his love letter from the second floor to the floor below so that it can reach a young girl who lives there. However, he does not suspect that, this time, his love letter is to be “intercepted” by the young girl’s chaperon. Similar to Spitzweg’s other paintings, the comic effect here is enhanced by many little details, including of the older woman seen wearing a cross (meaning that the consequences of the young man’s actions will be severe) and two loved-up doves (pictured to the right) looking at the scene also much “amused”, while also acknowledging that love is, indeed, in the air. The painting seems simple, and yet, through the wonderful execution, the concept says so much. The painting is on display at the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt, Germany, that also hosts the largest collection of works by Carl Spitzweg.

IV. Suspicious Smoke [1860]

This is not such a popular painting by Spitzweg, but it somehow caught my attention. In it, we see a man with a pipe looking to his left, in the direction of a fire he has just spotted. It is hard to discern this man’s reaction to the scene unfolding in the distance, but he appears calm, even if his posture shows curiosity. The quietness of the present moment and the stillness in the man’s abode can be contrasted with the imagined chaos that is undoubtedly unfolding at quite a distance. Spitzweg manages “to connect” the man to the distant event by presenting him smoking a pipe in his wooden structure filled with plants. It is probably human carelessness (not unlike leaving a lit smoking pipe unattended) which caused the fire that now holds the man’s attention.

15 thoughts on “The Comical Art of Carl Spitzweg

    1. Yes, he has many more curious paintings, and I am especially intrigued by his paintings showing a “bookworm” (that’s the title); a botanist; an alchemist; an astronomer; and a geologist, to name just a few. “Childhood Friends” is great, too. I didn’t expect to find so many I adore. Each seems to tell a short story of a sort.

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  1. A very eloquent and insightful presentation of Spitzweg. I wasn’t familiar with his work at all apart from seeing reproductions of ‘The Poor Poet’ on chocolate boxes of all things. Thanks for familiarising me with his work.

    Liked by 1 person

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