Goethe and Hackert - Interview with Hellmut Seemann

Hellmut Seemann, the director of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar and docent for management of cultural institutions at Hochschule für Musik FRANZ LISZT Weimar, is sharing his well-founded knowledge about the history of these marvellous paintings by Jacob Philipp Hackert.

View of the Arno Valley and Fiesole

Claudia Nordhoff (ed.): Jakob Philipp Hackert, Briefe (1761-1806). Göttingen 2012, p. 199.

As Claudia Nordhoff iterates, this “View of the Arno Vally and Fiesole”, painted in 1804, is an important example of Jacob Philipp Hackert's late period. It is remarkable for several reasons: It was housed in a private collection for over 100 years, together with Hackert's “View of Maddaloni” (see lot 1302), and only recorded in contemporary documents. These documents include Hackert's private correspondence with none other than Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The work held great personal significance for the artist, as it was commissioned by an old and dear friend, the Englishman Sir John Francis Edward Acton (for more information on Acton's life, see the following lot). The first version of this landscape, painted for Grand Duke Karl-August of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach, has been lost since WWII. The composition, which Goethe praised so highly, has only survived in this version, a fact that lends the work even greater art historical significance (cf. expertise Nordhoff; Nordhoff 2012, op. cit., p. 199).

The work depicts the region north of Florence with a view of Fiesole. As mentioned previously, Hackert first painted a version of this composition for the Grand Duke of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach. After Goethe received the initial version in Weimar with such enthusiasm, Hackert told him of his plan to create a second version. He wanted to create “a repetition of this composition for Mr Ackton, as it characterises the country and he has not found anything more beautiful in the surroundings of Florence” (from the German).

Goethe's poetic description of Hackert's paintings

Goethe described the first version in the “Intelligenzblatt der Jenaischen Allgemeinen Literaturzeitung“. It is worth reproducing Goethe's description in part here, “The […] painting depicts […] the surroundings of Florence; the peaks of the Massa Carrara mountain range rise up in the blue distance, and nearer the slope of the Apennines leads downwards towards Pisa and Livorno. We see Fiesole on the right on its lofty hill, and to the left the peaks around Florence, crowned by peasant cottages. Between them the verdant plain between Prato and Pistoja, fed by the river Arno […] one recognises many of the cottages, churches, and abbeys, and feels that one could almost walk the paths, climb the hill of Fiesole, and follow the River Arno…” (from the German).

It is hard to imagine a more poetic description of Hackert's image than that penned by Goethe. The poet immerses himself in the landscape, walking it once more in his mind's eye. His description allowed a sympathetic, educated audience in Germany to share in his viewing of Hackert's work, merging it with memories of his own trip to Italy.

Claudia Nordhoff points out that this version of the landscape for John Francis Edward Acton is not merely a replica, but an independent work. Hackert made changes to this version, apparently in response to Goethe's criticism. Goethe, who was also knowledgeable in economic matters, mentioned that Hackert had painted too many cattle in the foreground of the first version which did not belong there, “because the area around Florence is primarily rich in oil and wine, but cannot support many cattle” - an observation that modern travellers to Florence can confirm. The reduction of the animals in the foreground was beneficial to the composition since it opens up the view of the mountains of Massa Carrara more effectively.

View of Maddaloni

Claudia Nordhoff (ed.): Jakob Philipp Hackert, Briefe (1761-1806). Göttingen 2012, p. 199.

Like the previous lot “View of the Arno Valley and Fiesole” (lot 1301), Hackert also painted this “View of Maddaloni” for Sir John Francis Edward Acton. What was written about the “View of the Arno Valley and Fiesole” also applies to this work. Its significance arises from the artist's friendship with the work's British patron and the fact that the prime version painted for Grand Duke Karl-Ernst of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach is now lost. Like the “View of the Arno Valley and Fiesole”, the present work has also been in German private ownership for over 100 years, and for many years nothing was known of its existence.

Whilst the “View of the Arno Valley and Fiesole” depicts a landscape in Tuscany, the present work depicts the Campagna in Southern Italy. It shows the town of Maddaloni at the base of Monte Michele near Caserta seen from the south. Caserta was the site of the palace of Ferdinand IV, where Hackert resided for over 14 years as court painter. The present work can be described as a “landscape portrait” (Nordhoff), the churches and towers of Maddaloni are clearly recognisable in the image. A river also runs through this painting, presumably the Fosso dell´Aia. The water mill on the river, the herds, and the dozing shepherd in the foreground demonstrate the fecundity of the landscape and evoke an idyllic Arcadian vision of Italy.

Italy - steady inspiration for Jacob Philipp Hackert

Castera and Florence, Tuscany and the Campagna were the great geographical points of reference for both painter and patron, and held personal significance for both Acton and Hackert. Jacob Philipp Hackert, a German artist from Prenzlau, became court painter for Ferdinand IV of Naples in 1786. He left Naples in 1799, the year of the French invasion, and resettled to Florence, where he also painted this landscape. Sir John Francis Edward Acton was born in Lyon and pursued a glittering political career in two Italian courts. He first served Grand Duke Leopold in Tuscany and later moved to the Neapolitan court of Ferdinand IV, serving in many important positions and eventually achieving the rank of “Primo Ministro”. After the French invasion, Acton withdrew to Sicily with the King.

Acton and Hackert became friends whilst at the court of Ferdinand IV. They met frequently, a fact which we know from travel reports, Hackert dedicated engravings to Acton, and they surely also hiked together in the area around Caserta, both of them sharing an admiration for the beauty of this countryside. Hackert and Acton were both representatives of a cosmopolitan European elite, pursuing successful international careers made possible by the court culture of the time. With this in mind, it is little wonder that they became so close.

John Acton planned to retire to his manor house in England at the end of his political career. He wanted Hackert's views of Fiesole and Maddolini to be reminders of his busy years in Italy, “an adornment for his hall in England”, as Hackert wrote to Goethe. A third view of Rome was never painted. It must have been a great honour for Hackert to carry out this commission for his old friend, capturing the landscapes that meant so much to them.

Like “View of the Arno Valley and Fiesole” (lot 1301), “View of Maddaloni” is also “of great importance for Hackert's late work”, as Claudia Nordhoff mentions. They are “Hackert masterpieces”, which “confirm his reputation as the greatest landscape painter of his era”. Moreover, his works are visual testimonies to a time - frequently referred to as the “Goethe era” - in which artists, politicians, rulers, and writers of all backgrounds, origins, cultures, and languages were united in their enthusiasm for the beauty of Italy.