|Undeservedly forgotten talent|
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.
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.
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.
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.
| Estonian Art 2/07 (21) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2007 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | email@example.com | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |