Gregorovius’ “View of Danzig”
A humane sort of grandeur resides in View of Danzig, Michael Carl Gregorovius’ rendering of the town hall, facing plaza and surrounding buildings.
The painting is substantial — 39 inches tall, 32 wide — and so are the buildings it depicts. This showcase architecture stands on prime real estate in what we know as the modern Polish city of Gdańsk. The undisputed centerpiece is the town hall, with its tower reaching through a peachy southwestern sunset into a cloud-mottled blue sky.
In this 1825 work, Gregorovius (so obscure not even Wikipedia has heard of him) celebrates not only architecture, but also urban life. The human figures are minor in the painting’s composition but important in its psychology. Their posture invariably shows a certain relaxed grace. They feel at home on this cobblestone plaza. Carefully wrought perspective makes most of the people bigger than the sculpted figures atop the buildings; the artist is telling us that flesh-and-blood people count for something in this space.
The buildings, major piles of stone though they may be, envelope and frame the plaza and its strollers with a light touch. The stone buildings, four of them adorned with monumental allegorical figures, do not impose on the plaza or oppress the people in it. Gregorovius stressed not their mass and weight, but rather their uplift. He lavished attention on the fine mullions in the many windows and on the mortice joints between the stones. He transforms the buildings into delicate traceries that cage the plaza gently. The town hall spire, with its whimsical needle-like ornaments and airy triple capital, treads the sky as gaily as a kite.
The artist flecked and shaded his renderings of glass, gilt and marble ever so subtly with the unseen sunset’s pinkish glow, and he contrasts that brightness elegantly with the luxurious blues and charcoals in those facades that have fallen into shadow. (I have run across an 1818 Gregorovius painting of the same locale in full morning light. Judging by the Internet images, MAM’s appears far richer and more engaging.)
Gregorovius not only captures an urban space, but proposes urban space as it ought to be. He perceives his city as not only grand, but also humane, spacious, peaceful, orderly — the very ideal of Enlightenment thinking persevering into the Romantic age.
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