Undeservedly forgotten talent Estonian Institute
Anne Untera
Gottlieb Welte The exhibition Rococo in Estonia. Gottlieb Welté took place 22 September 2007– 20 January 2008 in Kadriorg Art Museum

“On 17 December the drawing master, Mr Gottlieb Welte, died in my house after being in service here for a year and a few months. As I am not quite certain where he comes from, and to avoid any muddle concerning his legacy, I have decided to inform the imperial court of the incident and am hereby adding a precise list of all the belongings of the deceased, so that the imperial court can publish a notice and invite possible heirs to collect these items” (Estonian State Archives, F 11, n 283, l 12). With these words the Lohu manor lord Otto Wilhelm von Krusenstiern informed the Paldiski district court on 28 December 1792 of the death of Gottlieb Welté. The two dispatched boxes of the earthly possessions of the artist contained books and clothes, a pocket watch and a tobacco box, but not a single work of art. The only person to react to the announcement was the Tallinn bookseller Gottlieb Bornwasser, who demanded his due to cover the debts Welté had accumulated for books, sheet music and a bust of Shakespeare. Welté’s person and work sank into such oblivion in Estonia for more than a century and a half that it is no longer even possible to find his burial place.

Gottlieb Welte Several research projects have tackled the art of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century in Estonia, but art historians were a bit cautious about Welté’s work, because so little has survived and even that is fragmentary. Nothing at all is known about the artist’s younger years in Mainz and Frankfurt-am-Main. As early as 1977 and 1980, Juta Keevallik published overviews of 18th century portrait art and Anton Graff’s works in Estonia. Figurative art in the period of late baroque, rococo and early classicism has been examined in various ways by architecture historians Helmi Üprus, Juhan Maiste, Ants Hein and others. Gottlieb Welté’s name emerged in the 1960s when frescoes painted by Welté in the Lohu manor were revealed hidden under later layers of wallpaper (also valuable, produced by the French firm Jaquemard & Benard). In 1969 Leo Tiik published an article, based on his research in the archives, which focused on Welté’s connections with the history of the Põltsamaa porcelain factory. The new edition of Estonian Art History (2005) also tackles Welté in the company of the porcelain-makers. In comparison, we can say that under the supervision of Professor Juhan Maiste, the heritage of the Tartu University architect Johann Wilhelm Krause (1757–1828) – his early drawings – has been quite thoroughly researched and interpreted. Krause arrived in Livonia in 1774 via the Liepaja harbour and found employment as a home tutor in the Jauna manor in present-day Latvia. Three years before him, Gottlieb Welté had arrived in Põltsamaa via St Petersburg.

Gottlieb Welte In his hometowns of Mainz and Frankfurt, where Welté started his artistic career, he was not so easily forgotten. In 1867 Fr. Gwinner called Welté one of the most talented German artists of the 18th century. In 1851 G. K. Nagler regarded him as the wittiest artist of his time; according to the Thieme-Becker art lexicon, Welté was among the most charming German rococo masters; in 1928 P. F. Schmidt wrote in a more moderate and sensible manner: “His works are an example of a wild and unregulated genius, expressed in sketches of society and religious pictures, picturesque effects and drastic gestures, full of original ideas, but not in fact with any remarkable quality.” The artist was deemed very talented, but moody and insubordinate. He travelled into distant eastern areas where he met his inglorious death.

Gottlieb Welté should be regarded, in the context of the Enlightenment, as an individualist who remained faithful to his talent without wishing to submit to the rules of his field in any way. The life of a nonconformist is not easy at any time, but it seems that Gottlieb Welté remained alone due to rather tragic circumstances. Arriving in Põltsamaa, the hub of education and manor culture of the time, he lost his footing for various reasons. Several manufacturers went bankrupt and the artist had to earn his daily bread in a situation that had hardly anything to do with art.

Gottlieb Welte Although Welté was later a home tutor in Võisiku and Lohu manors, he cannot be called an intellectual compared with numerous other Baltic home tutors, most of whom were university educated. Despite his extensive reading, Gottlieb Welté had never been to university. As the son of an artist, he first studied with his father, and later probably at Joseph Ignaz Appiani’s academy in Mainz. In about 1774, he moved to Frankfurt, where he worked in the studio of Christian Georg Schütz Sr, painting small figures of people and animals in big Rhineland views. The house of Goethe’s parents, in the Goethe Museum in Frankfurt, has at least two paintings signed by Schütz, where the figures were provided by Welté: View of Pyrmont from the North (signed: Schüz. fecit 1774) and View of Pyrmont from the South-east (signed: Schüz fecit 1775) (information from Dr Gerhard Kölsch, researcher at the Goethe Museum). Welté was a loner also in his etching work, which was not properly appreciated in his lifetime. His 55 different etchings are in the spirit of French rococo, although frivolity and sweetness is often replaced by a caricaturing, angular style. The tiny aquatint of 1774 Pyramus and Thisbe is a kind of key to understanding the pictorial programme of Lohu manor frescoes. In an earlier, tragicomic engraving that depicts the suicide of the two lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, he followed Shakespeare’s text, whereas the Lohu grisaille painting corresponds more to Ramler’s description of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Dr D. von Hellermann’s opinion). Welté’s stay in Estonia was short; he largely spent the time exchanging one employer for another, full of shattered hopes, illness and poverty. The time in which he lived was, nevertheless, more favourable for him than that immediately before and after would have been. Between 1770 and 1780 Livonia enjoyed an age of enlightenment, and Estonia was home to such active intellectuals as A. W. Hupel, J. H. von Lilienfeldt, J. Chr. Petri and others. Petri, a critic of serfdom, saw Welté’s work when he arrived in Põltsamaa in 1789 and was full of admiration. In 1796, when Paul I ascended to the throne, the intellectual atmosphere became more stifled, the influx of university-educated people from the West diminished, and not many new books and works of art made it to this part of the world. J. Chr. Petri was amazed and disapproved of the Baltic nobility’s fondness for luxury and described it in 1805, when his books could no longer be read in Livonia: “Pride, squandering and luxury, which surprise all foreigners, are evident everywhere. The house, dinner table, social entertainment, service, vehicles, everything here (naturally in the case of wealthy nobles) is more glamorous than I have ever seen in the lifestyle of the German nobility. Christmas, Easter and Midsummer are particularly times of year when all the manor houses and most vicarages are filled with guests.” Welté painted Estonian peasants realistically and with dignity. On the other hand, the scene in his most famous painting, Winter View of Põltsamaa Castle (1783, the landscape painted by F. H. Barisien), where a company of people are racing in a sleigh and a woman has fallen off it, shows a distancing, critical attitude towards the joy-riders. F. H. Barisien had already left Põltsamaa, and Welté signed the picture exactly as the master Schütz had signed his work in Frankfurt.

Gottlieb Welté, who yearned to return to his hometown Mainz, could not have known that good times for artists were about to end there as well. The conquest by the French in 1792 terminated the era of the prince-elector, and the aristocrats and the artists who were connected with them fled the city. The flourishing rococo centre of Mainz became a small provincial town.

Besides the efforts of Dorothee von Hellermann, who in 2007 published a monographic article in Mainzer Zeitschrift, Welté’s work is also being researched in Germany by Dr Norbert Suhr, Dr Heidrun Ludwig and Gerhard Kölsch. The first overview exhibition organised by the Kadriorg Art Museum, Rococo in Estonia. Gottlieb Welté 1745/49–1792, will travel to his hometown Mainz in 2008.

Anne Untera (1951), art historian. Head of the graphic art collection at the Art Museum of Estonia. Research topics include 18th–19th century Baltic German art and Estonian graphic art.

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