The Struggle for Freedom (1790-1815)

On occasion of the Prussian Sale we have divided the timespan between 1701 and 1918 into chapters, introducing their most influential players, commentators, and styles. Take a look and let us surprise you!

Much was to change at the Prussian court when Frederick William III ascended the throne. The lifestyle of the young ruler and his beloved wife Louise could have almost been mistaken for that of an average middle-class family. Frederick William had grown to loathe the decadence and excesses of his father’s court, no doubt influenced by the more modest Zeitgeist that had developed as a result of pressure from the populace. Visible displays of wealth were no longer de rigueur, as the horrors of the French Revolution still haunted the minds of Europe’s elite. Frederick William, then still crown prince, wrote in his “Gedanken über die Regierungskunst” (Thoughts on the Art of Governance) of around 1796/97 “Royal courts tend to be populated by petulant, arrogant, supercilious, and impertinent subjects. It is due to this that the citizens often regard them as dens of debauchery and sin.” In 1798, the poet Karl Alexander Herklots praised the King in verse: “Nicht dem Purpur, nicht der Krone//Räumt er eitlen Vorrang ein//Er ist der Bürger auf dem Throne //und sein Stolz ist’s Mensch zu sein” (He does not vainly flaunt the purple and the crown; but is a citizen on the throne, of his humanity he is proud). Infitting with this, his portrait depicts him in a simple uniform with the Order of the Black Eagle, and not in the usual opulent robes of kingship (lot 164). 

The French culture, which had a profound influence on German courtly life at the time, tended to favour the Roman tradition.

The paradigm shift from the Rococo to the Neoclassical style was followed through across all media, from architecture to the decorative arts. Whilst Frederick William II’s mistress Wilhelmine Enke still emulated the stylised poses of Marie Antoinette, Queen Louise was portrayed in the comparatively simple garb of an Attic patrician (lot 165). You can find out more about the beloved Queen and the myths surrounding her in Philipp Demandt’s essay “The Prussian Madonna”. 

The delicate leaves of the rocaille were almost entirely banished from architecture, and buildings instead followed the ordered lines of ancient Greece. Seminal events in the history of archaeology such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s discovery of Olympia meant that people now knew the secrets of the ancient architects, and were able to flaunt this knowledge to the world. One peculiarity of Winckelmann’s brand of classicism was the preference of the Grecian legacy over that of the Latin Roman world. This favouritism had political and historical motives: The French culture, which had a profound influence on German courtly life at the time, tended to favour the Roman tradition. A proponent of the Enlightenment, Winckelmann contrasted Greek democracy with Roman despotism.

Although besides his exemplary moral standards, Frederick William III was no great reformer, he had among his advisors many who were. During the occupation by the French Emperor Napoleon, men like Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Karl Freiherr vom Stein passed reforms that revived the Prussian state’s ability to act. These included the abolition of serfdom and the introduction of universal conscription across all social classes. This had a profound effect on the feeling of camaraderie within the army; the soldiers no longer had to be forced into action with drills and beatings. However, French fashions still found their way into Prussian artistic products during the time of the occupation. An impressive example of this being the royal footed bowl offered here as lot 163.

When Frederick William could finally be convinced that Napoleon’s end was near following the fateful Russian campaign of 1813, a proud army was raised from all levels of society to fight the Wars of Liberation. Military motifs became highly popular with KPM, for example the plates with detailed depictions of Prussian and French soldiers found in the following chapter (lots 169, 170, 171, 172). The changes of this time led to the development of a previously unknown feeling of solidarity within the disparate Prussian territories. The victory over Napoleon in 1815 formed the foundations of a romanticised sense of patriotism that would increase throughout the century and eventually pose even greater challenges for the royal house.

The Prussian Madonna

Queen Louise of Prussia passed away in July 1810. Four years after the country had been forced to surrender to Napoleon, at the height of its financial and moral despair, the Prussian nation had also lost its fair mother and heroic shining light. However, with death comes the afterlife: Louise would be reborn in legend as the figurehead of the Wars of Liberation and the mother of the German nation.

“I am thunderstruck”, wrote General Blücher when he received the news of the Queen’s death, “It cannot be possible for a state to have such bad luck again and again”. The Prussians thought they had reached the lowest point in their history, but Queen Louise’s early death in July 1810 taught them better. The defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806, the royal family’s hasty retreat to Eastern Prussia, and the peace treaty of Tilsit had hit the country hard. Prussia had lost half of its territories and subjects, and for days its future as an independent nation hung in the balance.

When hopes of a soft peace began to dwindle, the Queen was convinced to go to Napoleon with an appeal. However, the hatred of the two rulers for each other was well-known: The Corsican general had once named her his “greatest adversary”, a “bloodthirsty Amazon”. Louise herself was also not short of retorts: Bonaparte, who had “climbed up from the dung” was “the devil in human form”. However, the meeting in Tilsit was to change both their minds. She admired him for his Ceasar’s countenance and he in turn described her as a woman with “intellect and composure”, but the Queen’s pleas were to fall on deaf ears. The meeting ended on a bitter note as Frederick William III stormed into the room. He felt that his wife had spent too much time alone with Prussia’s archrival. “The King’s arrival was perfect timing”, Napoleon was later to remark, “a quarter hour longer and I would have promised the Queen anything.” Whilst Frederick William was to go down in history as a buffoon, his wife became a symbol of German resilience in the face of humiliation. This was the picture which Joseph Goebbels was to paint of her when he addressed the German people in 1945.

The beautiful Louise was well-liked since arriving in Berlin from her home in Mecklenburg in 1793. She was particularly popular among Prussia’s male population. Poets and diplomats alike sung praises of her beauty, and the stares she received at state banquets were oftentimes so penetrating that she completely lost her appetite. However, Louise herself was partially to blame for this, having a penchant for the Grecian fashion of low-cut, gossamer like gowns that left little to the imagination; she became the erotic ideal of an era. This was cause for consternation among some of her contemporaries: “I cannot understand how the King allows his coquettish wife to dress that way”, wrote Countess Brühl. Marie von Bunsen expressed herself in no uncertain terms in her memoires of the Wilheminian Era in 1923: “In my day, only flirts would go about as loosely dressed as Queen Louise”

The Queen’s familiarity with her subjects, her spontaneous demeanour, and the fact that she had married for love – a rarity among the aristocracy – led to considerable sympathy among the middle classes, who saw in her a reflexion of their own values. How different this had been with regard to the court of her father-in-law, Frederick William II. He was known among his subjects as “the fat philanderer”, and the sculptorJohann Gottfried Schadow later recalled, “the whole of Potsdam was a brothel”. Thus, the romanticised purity of the young Queen became a thing of political import ever since her ascension to the throne in 1797. She became the embodiment of the “new woman”, a loyal, domestic, and gentle mother, which further consolidated her role as intermediary between the people and the crown. The poet Novalis wrote enthusiastically that every woman and mother should have a portrait of Louise in their rooms, and the author Maria Mnioch even hoped that these “Madonnas” would help to cure the “feeble minds” of the aristocracy. The royal couple’s modest way of life gave them the political legitimacy to rule. If monarchs lived by the standards of the middle classes, they could only be the allies, not the enemies, of the people in their struggle for freedom and political franchise.

However, as so often is the case, the reality was far from the ideal. People often forget Louise’s frivolous tendencies, and the fact that Frederick William played the bourgeoisie because the kingship was a burden to him. What did it matter that the King and Queen remained ensnared within an Absolutist worldview and that in the “age of sensitivity”, the natural and spontaneous demeanour for which Louise was so revered was simply a part of the aristocratic canon of virtues. The Queen was regarded with ambivalence by those who knew her. Baron von Stein wrote, “she is not a noble woman”, and considered her shallow and coquettish. Field Marshall Gneisenau regarded her as “unexceptional” in her role as mother and remarked “even her heart was not always inclined towards her husband” – the Queen’s infatuation with the Russian Tsar was common knowledge at court. However, this criticism remained hidden from the public eye, never to tarnish the image of a perfect Queen. 

Her children had Louise to thank for their informal and genuinely affectionate upbringing, and whilst France was still suffering under the repercussions of a murderous revolution, Queen Louise embodied the Prussians’ hope for a non-violent reformation of the monarchy.

“You see her developing the character of a king”. Heinrich von Kleist

The Queen’s political import rose yet again in 1806, when the whole country looked to her as a moral authority. The defeat by Napoleon had brought to light numerous deficits in the army and the state: Outdated military structures, a population devoid of patriotism, a stagnant cabinet, and a King unfit to meet the challenges of the times. Whilst Frederick William was contemplating abdication, his wife’s attitude was more pragmatic. “I see you developing the character of a king”, wrote Heinrich von Kleist. In a historically accurate observation, Theodor Mommsen added in 1876 that, like many women in the face of adversity, Louise developed a strength that men generally lost.

Two men in whom Louise placed high hopes were ready to meet the challenge: The reformers Stein and Hardenberg were to lay the foundations of the modern Prussian state. Although Stein’s gruff demeanour would later earn him the Queen’s contempt, Hardenberg could count on her unfailing support. It was Louise’s advocacy that earned him the position of State Chancellor in 1810. Numerous reforms, such as universal conscription, freedom of enterprise, Jewish emancipation, the abolition of serfdom, and the civil ordinance were to strengthen the Prussian citizens’ allegiance to their state. Post-Revolutionary France served as an example of the powers which could be unleashed in a state governed by a constitution and the rule of law, but also as the bogeyman against which Prussians could rally in defiance of the occupying forces. It became their goal to emulate the achievements of the Revolution without diminishing the Absolutist claims of the Prussian monarchy.

This gained greater urgency when words like “nation” and “fatherland” began to circulate during the French occupation. “Virtue leagues” were founded throughout the country to strengthen patriotic feeling. This was the birth of modern nationalism: Enlightened and idealistic on the one hand, violent and ignoble on the other – both sides appealing to the people of Germany to take their political destiny into their own hands. Whereas in 1802 Hegel had still lamented the “political nonentity” of the German middle classes, they were now forming social foundations, some of which bore Louise’s name. This time would go down in the history books as the “birth of the German nation”, shaping the idea of citizenship to this day, but it was also the time of the Queen of Prussia’s sudden death.

Louise’s passing on 19th July 1810 sent shockwaves through the Kingdom. In the depths of financial misery and moral despair, its shining light was gone, just months after her return from exile. Terrible scenes played out at her deathbed in her father’s country residence, Hohenzieritz Palace. The King, her two eldest sons, her sister Friedericke, her father, and even her grandmother were present when the Queen passed away aged just 34 after battling with a lung condition over several days. “She is my everything!” her husband had written shortly before, “If we can only be together, God can send us any fate he chooses. Amen! Amen! Amen!” When the doctors finally persuaded him to tell his wife the tidings of her impending death, Frederick William broke down, and it was Louise who comforted him. When the King said at her deathbed, it could not be God’s will to take her from him, as she was his only friend on earth, Louise interrupted him - “don’t forget Hardenberg.” She kept her countenance until the end.

The first images of the Queen’s deathbed were circulated by the press several weeks later. The depiction catered to the longing for a myth, as it conformed to the middle class vision of a perfect death. The Queen was depicted saying farewell to her family and blessing her children, it was the death of a virtuous Christian. Her “middle class” life was followed by an equally modest death.

When the funeral procession reached Berlin, it was greeted by huge crowds at Brandenburg Gate. William von Humboldt spoke of an “unimaginable” silence. To the disappointment of the crowds, the summer heat had affected the corpse so badly that it made an open-casket funeral impossible, but they were still given three days’ time to file past the coffin when it was displayed at the City Palace.

Myths are designed to give meaning to historical events, and it took just days for the nation to find a meaning in the tragedy of Queen Louise’s death. The “Vossische Zeitung” would later write, “the most hateful curses were heard to issue from the mouths of even the mildest citizens against the vile usurper Napoleon, whose icy scorn had lethally wounded the Queen’s heart”. When the autopsy revealed an organic heart failure, it was seen as proof of a story that every Prussian child was to learn in school until 1945: Queen Louise had died of a broken heart out of grief for her ravaged nation. Knowledge of the damage wrought to her health by ten pregnancies in just two decades was pushed aside by the fervent belief in her martyrdom. It placed the seal on over a century of bitter hostility towards France, and cemented the image of an enemy that was to form the foundation of nationalism, as in the 19th century, almost all European nations defined themselves in opposition to their neighbours. “Louise’s name is a cry for revenge”, were the words of Theodor Körner, heroic poet of the Wars of Liberation. The Queen’s death was, and remained, “a murder committed by the French Nation”, and this could still be read in 1892 by Hermann Maertens: “To avenge it became the sacred duty of our nation. This view has remained a Prussian legacy to this day.”

„The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” Edgar Allan Poe

The idea of the German nation congregating around the funeral barque of a “true German woman” was not entirely in the interests of the Prussian monarchy. They were uneasy with Louise living on as the “guardian spirit of German interests”. In the official statement on occasion of the Queen’s death, court preacher Sack appealed to the people to show unconditional loyalty to their lonely Prussian King and prompted them that it was only natural to rally behind the “doubly loyal father” after the death of their nation’s mother. The dead Queen became a powerful political instrument. It came to be that the shy, awkward King presented such a sorry picture, both in reality and in popular fantasy, that the people sympathised with him. He became, “the mournful knight, who could never forget his absent lady love”, thus the words of Ernst Moritz Arndt, who saw the widower as a poetic archetype. “The security of the throne is founded on poetry”, Gneisenau told the King in 1811. Three decades later Edgar Allen Poe was to write, “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”

When the Wars of Liberation, as the German Campaign is referred to in Germany, began in 1813, Frederick William founded a military order in his wife’s honour on her birthday: The Iron Cross. The order was the first to be awarded regardless of class and rank, and has remained the symbol of the German army to this day. With the founding of the Order, the King inadvertently advanced his wife’s posthumous career as the figurehead of German unification: The national movement had been a decisive factor in the enthusiasm of those days. Under the symbol of the cross came victory after victory, and this was interpreted as Louise’s spirit working from heaven in the nation’s interests. She led the troops “like the angel with the fiery sword”, wrote Theodor Mommsen.

Against Hohenzollern family tradition, Frederick William did not want his wife laid to rest in Berlin Cathedral, but instead ordered a mausoleum to be built for her in the grounds of Charlottenburg Palace. The sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch made the figure to be placed upon the sarcophagus in its centre. The piece was a milestone of Neoclassicism, and formed the basis of Rauch’s rise to become the most successful German sculptor of the age. The work was completed on 30th May 1815, the day that Frederick William returned from the Congress of Vienna – could that have been coincidence? The King and his children went straight to the temple the moment he arrived. They found Louise lying there, apparently in the prime of her life, like a sleeping Goddess of antiquity, in a gown so thin that she seemed almost to be naked. It was the likeness of a woman with her whole life ahead of her. The image of Frederick William as the mournful victor, returning from the solemn restoration of the old order for which Louise had given her life, laying a wreath at the grave of his beloved wife was to move the hearts of poets and patriotic historians like no other.

In the same way it was the last time a woman would to be raised to sainthood in the light of the modern era, Rauch’s grave monument was the last work of art was to become an icon, a magic talisman. People flocked to the mausoleum in their thousands to touch the marble effigy of Louise that had taken the place of the historical woman. After all, Louise was always said to be “statuesque”, filled with “Hellenic spirit”, “alabaster white”, and to have lain on her death bed “as if carved out of marble”.

Many nations sought their embodiment in the female form. Attractive, maternal, invigorating; the state demanded from its subjects the same qualities that it provided: Love, protection, safety. Late nineteenth century war memorials depicted their female personifications as seductive sirens. They were designed to inspire soldiers to spill their blood for the fatherland in the same way they would for a mother or lover. Louise, in her allegorical form as the “true Germania”, was the first among these women.

However, whilst the Queen mother was born again as the mother of Germans with her mausoleum as the focal point of a political veneration cult, Frederick William III and his son and heir Frederick William IV were to dash the nation’s hopes for unity, justice, and freedom. Although the Queen’s son promised in 1849 that German unity was important to him as his mother’s legacy, this did not stop him from rejecting the crown of the German Empire, placed upon his head in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, and dubbing it a “pig’s crown”. The stench of revolution clung too strongly to it. Although historians like Johann Gustav Droysen tried their best to convince the Hohenzollerns of their national destiny with tales of their illustrious ancestors, the “Borussian Legend” spun around Frederick the Great did little to reduce the Prussian King’s reservations towards the German Empire.

This was all to change in 1870. Through a strange accident of fate, the 19th July 1870, the day on which the French declared what was to become the Third War of German Unification, happened to be the 60th anniversary of Queen Louise’s death. Whilst Otto von Bismarck was whipping the Reichstag into a war frenzy, the old Emperor William, who had ascended the throne upon the death of his childless brother, drove to his mother’s mausoleum. As the painter Anton von Werner were to have it, as William stood in silent meditation before the grave of his mother, a beam of light shone down upon Louise’s noble head, as if God himself wished to revive her. It was as though the Almighty had placed the reins of William’s charger into his mother’s hands. The German Campaign was about to enter its second round, history crystalling into one family’s fate: The vengeance of the son upon Napoleon III, the nephew of his mother’s killer. The war against France became a duel for the honour of one man and his nation.

„Learn to cry without complaining”

When William I accepted the Imperial crown handed to him by the German Princes in Versailles on 18th January 1871, it was as if his mother’s legacy had finally been fulfilled. Her afterlife became the founding legend of the German Empire and the his torical legitimation of the Prussian claim to rule. The peoples’ enthusiasm for the “Prussian Madonna” knew no bounds, and prompted an unparalleled cult following. Countless streets, parks, squares, mountains, schools, churches, and even warships were named after the “noblest woman in German history”. The anniversary of her death, “Queen Louise Day”, became a family holiday for millions, with memorial wreaths laid down by everyone from veterans’ associations to swimming clubs.

The Queen represented the victory of both the middle classes and the Hohenzollern monarchy, but after 1871 the progressive elements of the myth were replaced with those designed to cement conservative values. In times in which the idea of the “political woman” haunted the minds of Europe, the Queen’s memory was used against the emancipation movement to preserve the strict division of men and women’s roles. Louise became ever more domesticated. Generations of children were taught that her political intervention occurred out of desperation; the “patient royal sufferer” had acted out of national feeling and instinct, not out of reason. “Learn to cry without complaining”, wrote the Prussian officer’s daughter Marlene Dietrich shortly before her death in 1992, “is what Queen Louise wrote on the wall during her flight into exile”.

“She suffered less from the slander of her enemies than the vacuity of her admirers”, wrote Theodor Fontaine, but this did nothing to dampen the patriotic spirits that the National Socialists were still hoping to raise. However, when Louise featured in the 1945 film “Kolberg”, the last and most subtle of many Nazi propaganda pictures, the German people were already too tired for illusions. One contemporary commented, “they are trying to make it palatable to us to be sent to the slaughter.”

To this day, Louise remains the most beloved Prussian Queen. Her funeral sculpture still lies in the mausoleum in Charlottenburg to this day, unharmed by war and untouched by both the sentimental and the monstrous glorification of her person, with flowers at its feet.

Philipp Demandt

(Philipp Demandt is director of the Städel Museum, of the Schirn Kunsthalle and the Liebieghaus sculpture collection)

The Battle of Leipzig, or, the Insubordinate Heroes

The Prussian army had had no reason to celebrate its own strength for a long time. Like much of Europe, Prussia too had been taken over by Napoleon and declared a vassal of his Empire. 21,000 Prussian soldiers had accompanied the French Emperor on his 1812 Russian Campaign, and like him were forced to admit defeat in the face of a harsh winter. Whilst Napoleon was making his retreat, the Prussian Lieutenant General Yorck acted independently to establish a ceasefire with Russia and form an alliance against France. King Frederick William III, although himself blessed with little military talent, was furious at the General for acting without his consent and was at first reluctant to take the logical step of declaring war on France. When he finally did, it placed him at the tip of a rising resistance movement.

Together with their allies Russia, Austria, and Sweden, the Prussian army amassed before Leipzig in October 1813 in what was to be the largest battle the world had ever seen, which was to spell the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s empire. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost within just three days, and poor supplies meant that many died from minor injuries. However, since history is written by the victors and not the dead, the Battle became a national legend. It catapulted names such that of General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow to the status of German national heroes (Lot 285). Bülow had already beaten the army of the infamous Marshal Ney in September, saving Berlin from a French invasion. He and his troops were the first to arrive at Leipzig, and after the victory he moved Westwards to occupy Westphalia and conquer, or rather liberate, Belgium and Holland.

„A hunter blew into his horn, and everything he blew was lost.“ Achim von Arnim

The “Battle of the Nations“, as it was titled by the author Achim von Arnim, is often considered the political awakening of the German nation. One of the most significant factors contributing to this was the defection of the Saxon forces, formerly allied with Napoleon, to the Prussian army on the third day of the battle. Finally the nations rallied together under a sense of “Germanness”. However, this was by no means the end of regionalism. At the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the rulers of Europe would return to the old order and quash any dreams of a unified Germany. However, 1813 saw the first flickerings of an idea of a nation state that were to insure that the blood of the Battle of Leipzig was not the first to flow in the name of German national unity.