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Peter Cornelius

B. at Dusseldorf, September 23, 1783; d. at Berlin, March 6, 1867

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Cornelius, PETER, later when ennobled, VON CORNELIUS, b. at Dusseldorf, September 23, 1783; d. at Berlin, March 6, 1867. In 1811 he went to Rome, where he stayed until 1819. Returning home he became director of the Academy of Fine Arts at Dusseldorf; while at Dusseldorf he also executed works on a large scale for the Crown-Prince of Bavaria, later Louis I. In 1825 Cornelius was appointed director of the Academy at Munich, and for a long time Louis I of Bavaria was his liberal patron. After fifteen years, however, misunderstandings and the envy of detractors obliged Cornelius to accept the position offered him by Frederick IV of Prussia as director of the Academy of Fine Arts at Berlin, which office he retained until his death. Cornelius early developed poetic imagination, great energy, courage for large undertakings, and technical skill. He felt himself called to accomplish great tasks, and soon occupied himself with a large theme, the illustration of Goethe’s “Faust”. The publication of the first six sheets furnished Cornelius with the means for his first visit to Rome. Here he joined the Italian colony of German artists, the so-called “Nazarene painters”, and was power-fully stimulated both by working with them and by their enthusiasm for a new school of German-Christian art. This intercourse, however, entailed no loss of his independence and native force. He drew the remaining six pictures for “Faust”, illustrated the “Romeo and Juliet” of Shakespeare, whose works just at this period were becoming better known in Germany, and filled by the rising national spirit of his country made drawings for the old German epic, the “Niebelungenlied”.

While at Rome his longing to express great conceptions in fresco-painting on a large scale had its first opportunity of fulfilment. The Prussian ambassador, Bartholdy, gave a commission to the German painters for the decoration of his house on Monte Pincio with frescoes from the Old-Testament story of Joseph; through Bartholdy’s influence the same painters received an order from the Marchese Massimi to paint frescoes from the works of Ariosto, Tasso, and Dante in his villa near the Lateran. Some of these frescoes have a deservedly high reputation, as: “Joseph before Pharao“, “Joseph and his Brethren”, “Dante before Peter, James, and John”, as well as other groups in the cartoons for scenes in Paradise. Three of the Dante cartoons were completed, but one of them has since vanished. The superiority of Cornelius to the entire circle of his artist-friends, Overbeck included, became so clear to men like Niebuhr and Prince Louis of Bavaria that the two positions above-mentioned, at Dusseldorf and Munich, were offered him. No longer hampered by material cares or artistic limitations, Cornelius had now full opportunity and a fine field for the carrying out of his ideals. A commanding place in the artistic world of his own country was a long time assured him, and the attainment of his hopes for the development of art on a heroic scale in Germany seemed near. The first ten years of his life in Dusseldorf and Munich as a professor and working artist formed a period of great renown and success.

As director Cornelius took up with vigour the reorganization of the art academies of Munich and Dusseldorf, but his influence in the latter city was not permanent. After he had made Munich his permanent residence and most of his friends had followed him there, the academy at Dusseldorf, under the direction of Schadow, pursued other aims, one of the main differences being that the scheme of developing painting in fresco on a heroic scale was abandoned. At the same time Cornelius did not find at Munich all the assistants he had wished; above all Overbeck had not followed him. Besides this the pupils did not meet the great problems of painting in fresco with skill equal to his; he was also not able to obtain in every case competent teachers for the theoretical instruction in the subsidiary sciences which at that time he held to be absolutely essential. Moreover, the favor of the king was too extreme to be permanent, nor could it fail to arouse envy. After 1820 Cornelius and his pupils decorated two halls and an entrance chamber of the Glyptothek at Munich, a building intended for the exhibition of ancient sculpture. The subjects were, for the two halls, the gods and heroes of classic antiquity and, for the entrance chamber, the history of primitive man, the compositions being based on Greek mythology. The selection gave the artist the opportunity of presenting beautiful forms, strong action, and lofty ideals; at the same time he could make use of symbolical allusions as they are conceived by Dante.

Cornelius has been called a poet and thinker; the loftiness and unity of conception displayed by these frescoes justify the assertion. The mastery of the difficult proportion of space shown is astonishing; the surfaces seem to have been planned for the frescoes and not the frescoes for the spaces. On the other hand, the inequality of execution especially in regard to color is very striking. Cornelius allowed great liberty to his unequally gifted pupils; still much of the work, especially what he painted himself, is excellently carried out, as: “The Fall of Troy”, “The Judges of the Lower World”, “Eros with an Eagle”, and “Eros with Cerberus”. It must be acknowledged that Cornelius was not strong in color, although his frescoes from the life of Joseph in the Villa Bartholdy are in all particulars satisfactory. King Louis 1. allowed him to make only the drawings for the loggias of the Pinakothek; the execution of the work was entrusted to Clemens Zimmermann. In these designs Cornelius gave in an unconstrained manner, yet one full of thought and imagination, the history of German and Italian painting. He hoped to have an opportunity in the new church, the “Ludwigskirche”, to create a Christian epic which should be a Divine Comedy in color, but to his bitter disappointment he was only commissioned to decorate the choir and transept. The subject chosen for delineation was the Christian conception of the Creation, Redemption, and the Last Judgment; the gigantic fresco of the Judgment, containing 2500 square feet, was painted by Cornelius himself (1836-39). Parts of the fresco show great merit in composition and drawing; a reverent composure and the avoidance of repellent nudity distinguish the painting from Michelangelo’s “Judgment” on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The color scheme, it must be acknowledged, is somewhat lacking in harmony, and the light in the church is unfavorable. King Louis saw the fresco under peculiarly unfortunate circumstances, and Cornelius fell into disgrace.

In 1841 he went to Berlin where the art-loving Frederick William IV became his unwavering patron. While at Berlin he drew for the royal mausoleum planned by the king the celebrated cartoons: “Christ Conquering Sin“, intended for the east wall of a cloister designed in connection with a new cathedral; “Christ Conquering Death”, for the west wall of the cloister; “Christ in His Church“, for the south wall, and “Christ at the End of the World”, taken from the imagery of the Apocalypse, for the north wall. In harmony with the scheme of the cartoons is the painting for the apse of the intended cathedral, “Mankind Awaiting the Day of Judgment”, completed by Cornelius in 1856. During his residence at Berlin Cornelius produced his most mature work as a draughtsman; his designs were at all times so complete that they were not certain to gain by execution in color. The cartoons for the royal mausoleum, of which the one for the north wall was on the scale of the intended fresco, met fairly undisputed approval. His work as head of the German School at Rome and as leader in Germany of aspiring artists gives Cornelius the position of a pioneer of the nineteenth century in asserting high ideals and in developing technic on the heroic scale.


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