1796 Rossdorf a.d. Röhn – Meiningen 1867

Wagner began his studies in forestry and started drawing elements of the landscape as a hobby. Between 1817 and 1820, he took up the formal study of art under Carl August Richter (1770–1848) at the Dresden Academy, sponsored by Crown Prince Bernhard whom he had known as a child (Carl’s father, Johann Ernst Wagner, was cabinet secretary to Duke George I of Saxe-Meiningen). Carl Wagner was appointed painter to the court and curator of the Meiningen paintings collections by Bernhard in 1820, a position that ensured his financial security for the rest of his life. Wagner travelled extensively throughout Germany, Switzerland, the Tirol, Belgium, and northern France, and lived in Rome between 1822 and 1825; he recorded some of what he saw in a large number of topographical drawings that also reveal his intimate knowledge of natural forms.

Ludwig Richter, the son of Wagner’s teacher, who travelled in Italy with him, noted in his memoirs that “we saw the natural forms in Wagner’s nature studies as we had them before us in reality, and not translated through a pattern. […] Wagner had been so lucky as not to have had a mannered teacher as they all were then, or at least only at first, and so he stayed with nature and tried to put down for viewing on paper what his eye saw in nature, and especially what brought joy to his heart.” (Richter, p. 52: “Dagegen erblickten wir in Wagners Naturstudien die Naturformen, wie wir sie in der Wirklichkeit vor uns hatten, und nicht nach einer Schablone übersetzt. […] Wagner war so glücklich gewesen, keinen manierierten Lehrer, wie sie damals alle waren—oder nur für die ersten Anfänge—gehabt zu haben, und so hielt er sich an die Natur und suchte das auf dem Papier zur Anschauung zu bringen, was in der Natur sein Auge sah und vor allem sein Herz erfreute”; translation from cat. Cleveland/Berkeley/Pittsburgh 1994, p. 72)

Wagner emerges as a versatile artist. His early drawings are characterized by a fluid drawing style and a delicate palette with rather muted colors. Other watercolors by him have a close affinity to early watercolors by Johann Christian Reinhart (1761–1847) from the 1780s. Wagner admired the older painter, who had also worked at the Meiningen court a generation earlier. Reinhart’s friendship with Duke George I in many ways mirrored that of Wagner and George’s son Bernhard. The two artists met during Wagner’s Italian sojourn and Wagner ultimately assembled the largest-known collection of Reinhart’s work. Carl Wagner was an all-but-forgotten artist when his signature was discovered on a painting of a moonlit landscape (now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; König, p. 2) traditionally attributed to Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869). This discovery catapulted Wagner into the first rank of the great German Romantic artists, as Thieme/Becker points out (“Jahrzehntelang fast völlig vergessen, bis er durch die Aufdeckung der Signatur des bis dahin Carus zugewiesenen Bildes Mondaufgang in die erste Reihe der großen deutschen Romantiker gerückt wurde”). Although Wagner’s drawings have received somewhat more attention in recent years, a comprehensive overview is still lacking and an exhibition dedicated to his stylistically wide-ranged oeuvre would be a worthwhile.