Today, in celebration of the holiday season, we’re going to discuss one of my favorite paintings in the collection.
In St. Nicholas Day, painter Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793–1865) shows an Austrian family celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. On St. Nicholas Eve, Austrian children would put their shoes on the windowsill. If they had behaved well all year, the children would discover the next morning that St. Nicholas had filled their shoes with fruit, sweets, and small toys.
While at first glance the crowded room is full of excitement and joy, a closer look shows why Waldmüller was considered one of the most important Austrian artists of the nineteenth century. Rather than a chaotic scene, the painting is balanced and orderly. The gestures and glances of each subject draw the viewer’s eye around the painting, creating a sense of harmony.
As a realist, Waldmüller depicted each person as an individual and gave great attention to the setting and clothing that would have been familiar to fellow Austrians. His study of the Old Masters is obvious from his use of light—it enters the room from one point, through the open window—and how it makes the figures three-dimensional through highlights and shadow. The quality of the morning light is almost a subject in itself, reflecting Waldmüller’s travels to Italy in the 1830’s where he became fascinated by the Mediterranean sun.
We know that Waldmüller found inspiration in the Old Masters. In fact, while a student, he is known to have copied a number of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. This influenced him in St. Nicholas Day, because he has centered the entire composition upon the pyramid created by the grandmother holding up the baby on the table. It is probably no coincidence that these two figures in the middle of the painting are reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child (see the example by Raphael at right).
But, at its heart, St. Nicholas Day is a genre painting. In other words, it shows everyday people doing normal things. Once you appreciate Waldmüller’s mastery of art traditions, you can have fun looking at the details.
One of my favorites is the little girl in the foreground exploring the gifts in her shoe. Behind her, the family dog sits upright and stares at her intensely. He clearly is hoping that if he, too, is good, that he’ll get a treat!
Also, notice the two older children on the left side of the painting. The boy stands holding an empty shoe and the girl on the bench slumps with her head on her hand. They appear to be disappointed, having not received any gifts. Were they not good this year? Or are they too old to be visited by St. Nicholas anymore?
Finally, the painting has recently been cleaned. This removed and replaced the old, yellowing varnish that discolored the entire surface. The whites are now bright, the floor boards have become a warm brown, and the rustically textured beige of the walls is now discernible. With this cleaning, the round objects that the children hold—which must be fruit such as apples or oranges—have become even shinier. In fact, they look as if they are gold. Is this Waldmüller’s way of showing intense morning light? Is he suggesting that simple gifts are as good as gold? I leave it up to you to decide.
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.