One Piece at a Time

“Cow Herd at Lake Starnberg”

German Romantic cows, ducks and a couple of people, artfully and theatrically rendered and arranged.

By - Aug 8th, 2012 02:22 pm

Friedrich Voltz (German, 1817–1886) Cow Herd at Lake Starnberg, 1871 Oil on wood panel 13 1/2 x 34 in. (34.29 x 86.36 cm) Gift of the René von Schleinitz Foundation M1962.49 Photo credit John R. Glembin

Go to an art museum, pick a work, stand before it for a long time. Tell us what you see. TCD’s One Piece at a Time series began with that thought in the summer of 2010. TCD senior editor Tom Strini handled the One-Piece duties then and in 2011. This summer, we have a variation. In the winter and spring, Strini worked with a class of graduate students in art at UWM. They did the One Piece drill at the Milwaukee Art Museum, wrote draft essays, then survived a writer’s boot camp with Strini. We’re publishing the results, one piece at a time.

The varnished surface of Freidrich Voltz’ Cow Herd at Lake Starnberg (1817-1886) occasionally catches a light that reveals a busy texture of tiny ovular blobs. Evidence of the oily strokes made for each leaf and blade of grass. The finish becomes smoother on the long forms of the cattle. They wade into the shallow of the lake as if descending through the surface of a mirror.

An interplay of gazes from the animals sends lines through the space, locking in the geometry and rhythm. A lone calf casts an inquisitive gaze at three sun-soaked ducks. The stare of the farmer’s hound in the distance carefully monitors the herd. Humans in the scene are oblivious to the little drama; the farmer is busy greeting a visitor sailing in from the lake.

The moments play in a counterpoint of understated miracles. All this takes place in an expansive landscape, in which each set piece outdoes the last. The illusion is flawless, convincing, and effortless. The technical handling of paint interacts with the picture’s anecdotal subjects. We are viewing the work of a craftsmen with very specific goals.

Lessons from the history of art were certainly not lost on the German Romantic painters. Their subjects and handling of the medium echo the best elements of realisms past. They adapted techniques from the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque painters to represent an idealized perspective of nature and the human position within it. This pursuit culminated in one of the last great movements of realism, just as modernism was taking the reins of art and steering it rapidly elsewhere for a newly industrialized world.

The gloriousness of 19th-century cow herding is debatable, but Voltz makes it a snapshot of his time. After all, he only needed to impress the aristocratic Munich connoisseur; the approval of the cow farmer meant nothing. The hardships of agrarian work disappear, in favor of a romanticized version of rural life for an audience who likely never knew its labors.

Voltz’s painting is utterly compelling, the work of an artist whose aptitude is evident in every inch of the scene. If the Cow Herd at Lake Starnberg were placed next to a contemporary work by Cezanne, I would have trouble choosing the latter to focus my attention. It certainly helps that the painting is so well preserved. Were it not for the curvaceous gold frame, I might believe myself encountering it wet at the easel.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection of German Romantic art might be among the most underappreciated rooms of paintings in the collection. It certainly holds up to similar collections in Germany and often exceeds them in quality and scope. It’s both a stunning display of the possibilities of oil painting as a medium and also a snapshot of what constituted good taste in late 19th century Northern Europe.

Previously this summer: Corbett Toomsen on Henry Vianden’s Landscape with Mountains and River; Brooklyn Henke on Caillebotte’s Boaters on the Yerres; Joe Grennier on Warhol’s Brillo Box; Eric Roman Beining on Torso of a Male Athlete; Aneesha Baldeosingh on Jules Olitski’s Heat Resistance.


Categories: A/C Feature 3, Art

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