Speaking of the holidays, one of my favorite paintings in the Museum Collection is Meissen in Winter by German artist Ernst Ferdinand Oehme. Oehme (pronounced EHR-ma) shows us a snowy street in the German town, with the church tower silhouetted against the dusky sky, and a single star shining brightly.
I’ve seen many evenings like this in Wisconsin!
A few inhabitants have braved the cold, crisp air in this Meissen scene: a couple is talking a walk, a man makes his way up the hill, and a gentleman in the foreground has stopped to gaze up at a brightly lit bay window with a cheerfully decorated Christmas tree shown in the detail at left.
The holiday scene is subtle, quiet and calm—and clearly chilly—but I think that the happy glow of that window and the hopeful promise of the single star in the darkening sky are reassuring in what could be a desolate winter scene.
I see hope in that star, and spirit.
Oehme was a pupil of Caspar David Friedrich, an artist that I highlighted in an earlier blog post. Friedrich was a leading painter during the Romantic period in Germany, and his paintings have the characteristic Romantic haunting beauty with spiritual undertones and atmospheric effects. Some great examples of Friedrich’s work include The Abbey in the Oakwood in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany; Winter Landscape in the National Gallery, London; and The Barrow in Snow in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden.
On one hand, Oehme adopted Friedrich’s themes and subject matter in his paintings of Nordic monastery courtyards covered in snow, castle ruins in the mountains, and figures in mystical landscapes, but this artist never aspired to the same spiritual heights as Friedrich. His artworks are more about the human experience than the spiritual realm.
In Meissen in Winter, which is on view at the Museum in Gallery #9, Oehme’s deviation from Friedrich’s characteristic starkness is clear in his emphasis on family, warmth, and human fellowship, symbolized by the cozy bay window with its festively emblazoned Christmas tree. That window relieves the otherwise ominous loneliness suggested by the solitary figure and the single Gothic spire.
Oehme’s unique ability to humanize the bleak elements of Friedrich’s Romanticism best identifies him as a master of the late Biedermeier period.
It is a beautiful painting like this that reminds me, when the days are at their shortest and we are just heading into the coldest part of the year, that we are not the only humans to look a reason to be hopeful for the future and to find comfort in the company of others. And that, to me, is one of the greatest reasons to study art.
Best wishes for the holiday season!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier 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.