Wilhelm von Kaulbach is a genius frescoist of the 19th century

Portrait of the artist's daughter Gedda
Portrait of the artist’s daughter Gedda

Genius frescoist of the 19th century, whose best works were mercilessly destroyed by a terrible war

Wilhelm von Kaulbach (October 15, 1805 April 7, 1874) is a genius German artist of the 19th century, an outstanding master of the historical genre in European art. Wilhelm von Kaulbach was also a talented creator of woodcuts, etchings, book illustrations and a sought-after portrait painter. His paintings and wall paintings nowadays adorn the halls of the best museums in Germany, and the master’s biography is replete with interesting facts. The painter’s work was highly appreciated not only at home, but also abroad, he was a full member of a number of Art Academies, including the French, Belgian and American.

Portrait of a Girl
Portrait of a Girl

Wilhelm von Kaulbach was rightfully considered a wise mentor for young colleagues, and there are many famous artists among his students. In addition, his son Hermann (Hermann von Kaulbach) and his nephew Friedrich (Friedrich Kaulbach) achieved significant success in painting.

Queen Marie of Hanover and her daughter Mary, 1866
Queen Marie of Hanover and her daughter Mary, 1866

Biography of Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Wilhelm von Kaulbach was born on October 15, 1805 in the small town of Bad Arolsen in central Germany. His father was a versatile but mediocre artist who made a living by painting, engraving, and making jewelry. The family lived in poverty, but the parents, despite the lack of funds, from childhood encouraged their son’s passion for painting.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach
Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Wilhelm’s first mentor was his father, who taught the boy the basics of drawing and engraving. And in 1822, von Kaulbach was admitted to the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf, in the class of the famous master of painting Peter von Cornelius. Three years later, the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig I invited Cornelius to head the Munich Academy of Arts, and the experienced artist, after some deliberation, left Dusseldorf, taking with him several of his best students, including Wilhelm.

Under the guidance of a mentor, von Kaulbach successfully completed his studies at the academy and took part in several large-scale art projects. He enthusiastically worked on murals for the Odeon concert hall, the pavilions of the Hofgarten park and the halls of the palace of the Bavarian rulers, but the mythological genre did not particularly attract the young artist. Wilhelm liked historical painting more and he gradually began to paint pictures on this subject.

Von Kaulbach married the daughter of a Bavarian merchant, Josephine Satner.

In this marriage, he had three daughters and a son, who later also became an artist. In 1835, after the death of his eldest daughter, Wilhelm went on a creative trip to Venice, where he created many sketches and sketches, and also got acquainted with the work of the great masters of the past. Returning from Italy, the master painted a number of paintings that brought him wide fame and attracted wealthy customers.

In 1837, Wilhelm von Kaulbach was appointed court painter to the Bavarian king. At the same time, he received an offer from the ruler of Saxony to head the Academy of Arts in Dresden, but chose to stay in Munich. Soon the painter received a large-scale order from Ludwig I to create a series of fresco paintings for the New Pinakothek. The artist successfully coped with the difficult task, but his beautiful creations have not survived to this day. They were completely destroyed during the Second World War as a result of Allied bombing.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Crusaders in front of Jerusalem, 1846
Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Crusaders in front of Jerusalem, 1846
In 1845, the painter began to carry out another large-scale commission, but this time in Berlin.

King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia commissioned him to paint the walls of the main lobby in the building of the newly built Neues Museum complex. A series of six frescoes entitled The History of Humanity was completed in 1860. The artist worked on its creation for 15 years together with a team of students. Unfortunately, in 1945, the building of the New Museum was destroyed to the ground, and the beautiful frescoes by von Kaulbach were irretrievably lost to posterity. Despite the efforts of the German authorities, the unique wall paintings have not yet been restored.

In 1849, Wilhelm von Kaulbach became head of the Munich Academy of Arts and held the honorary position of director until his death. He bought himself a spacious house, constantly took part in exhibitions, created illustrations for the works of Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), Shakespeare (William Shakespeare) and Schiller (Johann von Schiller), continued to paint.

The life of the great artist was cut short by a cholera epidemic. On April 7, 1874, he died at his home at the age of 68. The craftsmen were buried in the old Munich cemetery, and a bronze bas-relief made by Lorenz Gedon was installed on his grave.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, 1846
Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, 1846
The most famous paintings by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

The brilliant painter has created many skillful masterpieces during his career, but not all of them have survived to this day. And yet, some of the most famous paintings by Wilhelm von Kaulbach rightfully include:

  • The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (1846) is a large-scale multi-figured work in which the artist depicted the tragic events of the war of the Jews against Roman rule. Along with real historical characters, the picture contains many angels and Old Testament prophets who are on the side of the rebels.
  • Illustrations for the collection “Reinecke-Fox” (1846) a cycle of several dozen drawings, describing the adventures of a fairy-tale hero. Largely due to the efforts of the artist, the book has withstood many reprints and is still in demand among readers around the world.
  • The Battle of the Huns (1850) is an epic masterpiece of the master, dedicated to the ancient legend of a terrible battle between the Romans and barbarians in the middle of the 5th century. This painting inspired Franz Liszt to write the symphonic poem of the same name in 1857.
  • The Battle of Salamis (1868) is one of the artist’s last works on historical subjects. The grandiose naval battle between the Greeks and Persians, skillfully described by the master, makes an inexpressible powerful impression on the audience.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach was one of the greatest masters of European historical painting of the 19th century, who made an enormous contribution to the development of German visual arts. His name will forever remain in the memory of grateful descendants, and his paintings will attract true connoisseurs to museums.

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