Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 128

Part 128: The Düsseldorf School

When I stumbled across the newspaper article where Walter Burridge commented on David A. Strong being the “only survivor of the Düsseldorf School,” I started to wonder what other scenic artists from his era might have been associated with the group. Burridge’s comment was made in 1892, and although the movement was not over, what was considered its “golden age” had certainly passed. I wanted to see if I could find some connections between the Strong’s painted scenes for the theatre and artists from the Düsseldorf movement. As I studied hundreds of works, numerous stage settings came to mind, especially for Scottish Rite degree productions. The rise of this movement occurring during the early development of Masonic degree productions appeared to be a perfect pairing.

The Düsseldorf School referred to a group of painters who either taught or studied at the Düsseldorf Academy (now Düsseldorf State Academy of Art). An extension of the German Romantic movement, it had a significant influence on nineteenth century landscape painting from the 1830s through the 1860s. The artists’ works were characterized by dramatically lit landscapes, often with historical subjects or allegorical stories. What a wonderful foundation for Masonic degree productions and the artists that created the stage settings!

The focal point of their compositions often fell in the middle ground with dark framing masses placed at the sides, using a realistic and detailed treatment for the forms. Roads, trails, streams, and other visual paths also drew one into the composition. I immediately recalled the forest compositions, the Road to Jerusalem, and the bridge scenes. As on the commercial stage, this was a popular method used in many theatrical settings.

Those associated with the Düsseldorf School also supported plein air painting, where you leave the four walls of your studio and work from nature. This remained a continued practice for many artists, including Thomas G. Moses and his contemporaries. I thought back to his numerous sketching trips where he sat in meadows, rocky mountain landscapes, and beside babbling brooks, to not only capture the beauty of nature for his future fine art works, but also record these same subjects for his future stage compositions. Moses’ trips to the Catskills, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Canadian Rockies, and many other picturesque locations were all incorporated into his small-scale and large-scale artworks.

When the Düsseldorf School was under the direction of Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow (1789-1862) from 1826-1859, many American painters flocked to the school during this time. The methods taught there were spread to many other academies throughout Germany and other countries. Those connected to this artistic movement would also have a significant influence on the later Hudson River School artists of the United States. For more information about this school within an international context from romanticism to impressionism, please see “The Düsseldorf School of painting and Its International Influence 1819-1918” (Bettina Baumgärtel, Editor, 2012).

One example of the Düsseldorf School produced by Andreas Achenbach.

In looking back at some of the Scottish Rite compositions, such as the rocky seacoast, they are extremely reminiscent of both the Düsseldorf and Hudson River artists. The compositions remain basically the same, but the painting of the scene by the same hand at the Austin Scottish Rite, Fargo Scottish Rite, Salina Scottish Rite, Winona Scottish Rite and some others are truly unique. I believe that they are all the work of Strong.

Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail. Austin Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Fargo Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2005.
Painted detail. Fargo Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2005.
Painted detail. Fargo Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2005.

There is a distinct departure from this “Düsseldorf approach” post-1911 as depicted in the setting for the Grand Forks Scottish Rite.

Painted detail. Grand Forks Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2013.

The Austin (original Guthrie scenery 1900), Salina (1901), Fargo (1903), and Winona (1909) settings have what Burridge suggested of Strong’s work as the only survivor of the Düsseldorf school with “the quality of opaqueness peculiar to his school.” I believe that the “opaqueness” referred to is the dark framing masses that make the middle for he composition glow, especially effective in the rocky seascapes. There is an underlying depth and rich quality to the masses. When compared with similar compositions across the country manufactured by Sosman & Landis studio artists after Strong’s passing, there is a much more even distribution of values throughout the seascape, even on the rocky shores.

To be continued…

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