1792 Großschönau near Zittau – Dresden 1866

Michael Wentzel first attended the drawing classes of Cajetan Toscani (1742–1815) at the Dresden Academy and remained there until 1812, studying with the still-life specialist Caroline Friederike Friedrich (1749–1815) and the neo-classical painter Christian Ferdinand Hartmann (1774–1842). He then went on to Vienna and is documented as being in Munich in 1823 and Leipzig in 1825. In 1828 he travelled for three years in Italy, visiting Rome, Naples, and Sicily. By 1831 Wentzel had returned to Dresden where he taught drawing at the Technische Bildungsanstalt (later Polytechnische Schule, today the Technische Universität Dresden) and in 1863, late in his life, was appointed professor there. He specialized in still-life and animal paintings while his work as a landscape artist was limited to a short period during and immediately after his return from Italy.

Some of these Italian views were disseminated in lithographs by Ludwig Nader (ca. 1811–1840) and etchings by Traugott Faber (1786–1863). Nonetheless, the artist remains obscure. The entry in Thieme/Becker, written by the Dresden scholar and collector Ernst Sigismund in 1942, probably remains the most comprehensive account of the artist’s life and work. Sigismund mentions drawings in private collections in Dresden, including his own, as well as “bei Dr. Apelt,” which must refer to the two watercolors presented here.

Both watercolors, in different ways, are small revelations, especially given the fact that they were executed by an artist who has since been virtually forgotten Clearly always kept in a portfolio and never matted and displayed, they have retained a remarkable freshness.

1792 Großschönau near Zittau – Dresden 1866

La Scuola di Virgilio 1829

watercolor over pen and ink with traces of pencil on laid paper; 305 x 473 mm (12 x 18 5/8 inches)

annotated in pencil at upper right La scola de Virgil 22 Junij 29.; in pen and ink nello Camerolle


estate of the artist (according to a pencil inscription on verso)
Dr. Franz Ulrich Apelt, Zittau
thence by descent

The Scuola di Virgilio is a rock formation near Posillippo. The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) had visited it a decade before Wentzel on a boat trip in the Bay of Naples. In a letter of December 1818 the poet writes: “We passed Posillippo and came first to the eastern point of the bay of Pozzuoli, which is within the great bay of Naples, and which again incloses [sic] that of Baiae. Here are lofty rocks and craggy islets, with arches and portals of precipice standing in the sea, and enormous caverns, which echoed faintly with the murmur of the languid tide. This is called La Scuola di Virgilio.” Wentzel’s pristinely preserved watercolor captures the dark-blue hues of the sea and the bright ocher of the rocks in Technicolor brilliance, evoking the warmth of an early summer day with the view of Mount Vesuvius in the far distance. As Shelley further observes in the same letter: “The colours of the water and the air breathe over all things here the radiance of their own beauty.”

It is worth pointing out that Wentzel used some of the finest watercolor paper to execute this sheet. The Canson Papermill traces its history back to the sixteenth century. By 1801 it had joined with Montgolfier, another prestigious French mill, and Canson & Montgolfier continued to produce renowned papers that were especially sought after by watercolorists.