As a genre painter of the urban bourgeoisie, Ferdinand Brütt’s main interest was in depicting the everyday life of the upper middle classes of Wilhelminian Germany, which in his paintings he does in small, humorous narrative scenes.1 In only two works of his oeuvre does the artist cast a glance at the modern middle-class city-dweller as a museum visitor: the now lost oil painting In der Bildergalerie (In the Picture Gallery) (also: Galeriebesucher or Gallery Visitors)2 and the painting under discussion here, which compared with the former work is the more modern and more loosely painted of the two. Both are based on a study by Brütt that is likewise in our possession. The interiors depicted in these works were almost certainly modelled on the collection of old masters at the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne, since the statue of the Venus de Milo bathed in bright light that can be glimpsed through the door at top right also crops up in Brütt’s Gemäldegalerie,3 the works in which have been identified as belonging to the said museum. In our painting, Brütt combines painterly virtuosity with a healthy dose of humour, gently poking fun at clueless city-dwellers’ attempts to engage with high art. The gallery brings together museum visitors of all ages and all social classes. As if indifferent to the venerable old masters on display there, however, they are shown peering intently at the three copyists, who have set up their easels in front of the masterpieces adorning the walls. Apart from a bourgeois old lady on the left-hand side of the work, not one of the visitors has raised his or her eyes to contemplate the old masters actually on the walls. Ironically, the painter calls on us, too, to concentrate not on the paintings, which in any case are scarcely identifiable, but on the responses and gesticulations of the museum visitors, even if only at arm’s length. The late nineteenth-century art lover out of his depth is epitomized by the elderly gentleman with hat and coat in the foreground, who, exhausted by such an overabundance of visual stimuli, stares back at us out of the picture with his hand pressed to his brow. It is as if his head were swimming with all the many works of art and copies of the same bearing down on him from all sides. Brütt thus affords us a tongue-in-cheek vignette of the ignorance and helplessness of his contemporaries in the face of great art, while at the same time making his own contribution to the cultural life of Wilhelminian society with a superbly painted work of social critique.
Special thanks to Mr. Alexander Bastek for his support.
Ferdinand Brütt 1849–1936. Erzählungen und Impressionen, exh. cat. Museum Giersch Frankfurt am Main 2007, Petersberg 2007, p. 31.↩
Ferdinand Brütt, In der Bildergalerie (auch: Galeriebesucher), 1889, oil on canvas, dimensions unknown, whereabouts unknown, see Ferdinand Brütt 1849–1936, exh. cat. p. 75 (fig. 49), WVZ No. 1889.1.↩
Ferdinand Brütt, Gemäldegalerie, 1887, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 82.5 cm, privately owned, see Ferdinand Brütt 1849–1936, exh. cat. p. 67 (fig. 33), WVZ No. 1887.4.↩