In 1988, the Milwaukee Art Museum purchased a painting by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, one of the most important German portraitists of the early 19th century. Up until that point, most of the paintings in the Museum’s German collection were from the second half of the 19th century, so this was a significant acquisition. You can find it on the bright blue wall in Gallery 9.
The portrait is a fantastic example of German neoclassical style blended with Biedermeier attention to detail. The upper-class gentleman, dressed expensively and with his jewelry prominently displayed, sits comfortably in an elaborately carved chair. The chair, with a griffin as the armrest, is gilded and upholstered in dark blue—an interpretation of ancient Roman furniture. Behind him is a gilded desk with marble top, again a quote from the ancient world, and a window with a luxurious dark red velvet curtain pulled up to show a city in the distance. The sitter is well-educated, shown by the books spread out on the table and the roll of paper with writing in his hand. He also wears the Maltese Cross on his jacket.
The question is, who is this man?
When the Museum purchased the painting, the dealer identified the sitter as Duke Ferdinand Georg August of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, a Saxon prince who would have been alive in 1815, the date of the painting. At first glance, this identification makes sense, for Duke Ferdinand was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism, and the man in the painting is surrounded by Catholic symbols: a bust of Pope Pius VII and a view of Vatican City seen through the window (the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica being the most prominent building). The Duke might have had the portrait made in celebration of his religious conversion.
There is, however, a problem with this identification. The man in the portrait looks nothing like Duke Ferdinand, as you can see from this portrait.
Some years ago, Laurie Winters, the Museum’s curator of European art, was taking a German guest through the Museum collection galleries. When he saw this painting, he complimented it, but added that it could not be the Duke.
So, two summers ago I worked with an intern, Annemarie Smith, to try to find out who it is. After finding images of Duke Ferdinand Georg August of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, we saw that it definitely was not Ferdinand. Annemarie also found out that Ferdinand did not convert to Catholicism until much later in life. In 1815, he was still Protestant. And, the artist, Vogelstein, was in Italy between 1813 and 1820, before the Duke converted. So Vogelstein could not have painted a portrait of Duke Ferdinand as a Catholic in Italy in 1815!
So Annemarie decided to try to track the sitter through the artist. Vogelstein was born in Wildenfels, Germany. She emailed the mayor of the small town, and he was happy to help. He forwarded a digital photo of our painting to two of Vogelstein’s living relatives. One of the two, Hermann Vogel von Vogelstein, promptly emailed back to suggest that the sitter was Duke Friedrich IV of Sachsen-Gotha. Hermann explained that Friedrich was the only one in his family to convert to Catholicism, and above all, it looks like him. A quick internet search turned up a few portraits of Friedrich, all of which match the painting. The two that clinch the identification are: one signed by B. Beck in the Schlossmuseum, Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha, Germany, which is such a close match to our Vogelstein that it may be a copy after it and another from the University Erfurt/Gotha that holds Friedrich’s papers in their library.
Annemarie also confirmed that Duke Friedrich was in Rome from 1804 through 1810, and again in 1814, when he converted to Catholicism. And Vogelstein was also there that year. So, it is probable that Friedrich sat for the portrait in Rome in 1814, which Vogelstein finished in—and signed in—1815.
We don’t know when or how the wrong name become attached to Vogelstein’s portrait, but now we have identified our Duke!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.