JOHANN CHRISTIAN KLENGEL
1741 Kesselsdorf near Dresden – Dresden 1824
Johann Christian Klengel was supported from early on in his career by members of the academy in Dresden. In 1768 he came to live in the house of Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, called Dietricy (1712–1774), one of the academy’s professors, who taught him landscape painting and etching. Klengel himself became a member of the Dresden Academy in 1777. He travelled to Italy in 1790–92. He then returned to Dresden and was appointed associate professor for landscape painting in 1800, receiving a full professorship in 1816. Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810) called him “one of our greatest landscape painters.”
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Hecuba Discovering the Body of Polydorus ca. 1800
brush and gray wash over traces of pencil on laid paper, laid down on an identical second sheet; 345 x 525 mm (13 5/8 x 20 ¾ inches);
signed at lower right Klengel fec.
Dr. Franz Ulrich Apelt, Zittau (not stamped)
thence by descent
Fröhlich, Klengel, p. 218, cat. no. Z 541
This large and highly finished monochrome watercolor, executed entirely with the brush in shades of gray, depicts an episode from the Trojan War that is most concisely summarized in book thirteen of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Polydorus is the youngest son of Priam and Hecuba. Once the war breaks out and the city of Troy is besieged by the Greeks, Polydorys is sent to Thrace under the protection of King Polymestor to save him in the event of Troy’s fall. Priam also sends gold treasure along for safekeeping. After the fall of Troy, however, the greedy Polymestor kills Polydorus for the gold by throwing him into the sea from a high tower. This detail of the story is clearly alluded to by the large tower in the background to the right of Klengel’s watercolor. Hecuba ultimately discovers the body of her son washed up on the shore. Klengel shows her fainting form in the company of her maids. Hecuba will later have a vision in a dream telling her that Polymestor was her son’s murderer. Aided by Agamemnon she avenges Polydorus’s death by blinding Polymestor and killing his sons.
The choice of a subject from Greek mythology, especially one that could be traced back to Homer, was explicitly promoted by Goethe with his so-called Weimarer Preisaufgaben, the annual art competition initiated by Goethe and Heinrich Meyer and conducted through their periodical Propyläen between 1799 and 1805. As a means of translating his theories into art, Goethe invited artists to submit compositions based on prescribed subjects—all of them taken from the Iliad and the Odyssey with the sole exception of the subject for 1804 when the given theme was as “Men, Threatened by the Element of Water.” The main cultural thrust of this venture can be summarized by the motto “back to the Greeks,” although it was Greek mythology rather than history that was favored in Weimar. The godfather of this enthroning of Homer was, of course, Johann Joachim Winckelmann who had stated in his last major work, the Monumenti antichi inediti of 1767, “that Homer is the great teacher of all Greek artists and that anyone who wishes to know the significance of their ideas must therefore seek refuge with the poet himself” (“daß Homerus der große Lehrer der griechischen Künstler gewesen, und jeder, der die Bedeutung ihrer Vorstellung zu wissen wünschete, musste daher zu dem Dichter selbst seine Zuflucht nehmen, um sich Aufklärung darüber zu verschaffen.” Quoted after cat. Frankfurt/Weimar 1994, p. 314).
Stylistically, however, Klengel remained a stern traditionalist, as his overall handling of this composition makes abundantly clear. In a conversation with Carl Gustav Carus (1789–1869) he once noted: “What is it that you want? Landscape only has two destination points: one is Ruysdael, the other Claude! One has to go one way or the other! Either pure nature or the ideal— everything in between is mere confusion” (“Was wollen Sie? Die Landschaft hat ja doch nur zwei Zielpunkte: der eine ist im Ruisdael, der andere im Claude! Man muss den einen oder den anderen Weg gehen! Entweder die reine Natur oder das Ideal, dazwischen liegt ja lauter Konfusion!” Quoted after Fröhlich, Klengel, p. 145).