Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein was born in Haina in 1761 into a family famous for its many artists in past generations. The young Tischbein began to study painting in 1766 with his uncles Johann Heinrich the Elder and Johann Jacob, who introduced him to late 17th-century French and Dutch painting.
More inclined towards a lenticular verism, he travelled to Holland in 1772 to study the painting of previous centuries. On his return to Germany, he lived in Kassel, Berlin and Hanover, where he worked mainly as a portrait painter. He was in fact one of the first authors of authentic Romanticism, rich in Sturm und Drang influences.
Tischbein in Italy
Having obtained a scholarship from the Academy of Kassel in 1779, he went to Italy, passing through Nuremberg to admire the engravings of Dürer, an author particularly appreciated in early Romanticism. When he arrived in Italy, he visited the major centres that preserve memories of the Renaissance, which he nourished to give his painting a clear classicist twist. In Rome, he studied antiquity as well as Raphael and Michelangelo.
He was so fascinated by Italian culture, and Roman culture in particular, that when his scholarship ended he did everything he could to obtain another from the court of Sachsen Gotha in Switzerland, where he stayed in 1781.
On his return to Rome, he devoted himself to a series of history paintings expressing his pre-Romantic interests in German medieval history, including Corradin of Swabia and Frederick of Austria in prison. Halfway between an acerbic Romanticism and the formalism of classicism à la David, Tischbein presents himself as an eclectic painter, deeply connected to the literary culture of the time. His relationship with Goethe, who had come to Rome in 1786, was no coincidence.
He hosted him in his house in Via del Corso and guided him through the antiquities and beauties of Rome. The following year, they settled in Naples, another fundamental stop on the grand tour. Although their relationship deteriorated during their stay in Naples, Tischbein achieved the success he had hoped for with his most famous work, Portrait of Goethe in the Roman Countryside, which won him the appointment as director of the Academy of Naples in 1789.
Between painting and engraving
While in Naples, he took part in the Pompeii excavation campaign, studying ancient artefacts and producing a series of engravings. He also produced an album of etchings dedicated to Sir Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases, entitled Collection of engravings from ancient vases of Greek workmanship discovered in sepulchres in kingdom of the two Siciles now in the possession of Sir W. Hamilton.
Vases, glyptics and animals are the main subjects of the author’s engravings, even after he left Naples following the arrival of the French. Classicism and pre-Romanticism combine in a formal and poetic dimension very similar to that of Otto Runge, with whom he became friends during his time in Hamburg in 1808.
Court painter to the Duke of Oldenburg, he moved to Eutin until his death in 1829.