Eduard Gaertner is synonymous with the architectural landscape of nineteenth century Berlin. Our European Art Sale features a rare view of Moscow from the Church of Nikita the Martyr on Tagansky Hill.
E duard Gaertner is widely regarded as one of the most important practitioners of architectural painting during the 19th century. With breath-taking panoramic accuracy and a delicate mastery of light, it is little wonder that he gained the patronage of the King Wilhelm III of Prussia, as well as Tsar Nicholas I of Russia during his lifetime.
While it is Gaertner’s bustling Berlin street scenes with which we are most familiar, pictures used to reconstruct the city following the devastation of the Second World War, he also travelled repeatedly to Moscow and St. Petersburg from 1837 to 1839. The Russian and Prussian courts were closely tied to one another at the time due to the fact that the Tsar’s wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, was the daughter of the Prussian King, Frederick William III.
Painted in 1840, Gaertner’s View of Moscow, a highlight of our European Art sale, is a masterpiece of perspective, colour and precision. A group of worshippers can be found kneeling at prayer on the veranda, facing the church and presumably the altar. A man in the foreground gently leans on the balcony edge, observing the towering view of the city, but his eye is also caught by the elegant company leaving the church. The view is looking out from the Church of Nikita the Martyr on Tagansky Hill, also known as Shvivaya Gorka. The large neo-classical building on the left hand side is the Moscow Orphanage, standing on the Moskvoretskaya Embankment of the Moskva River. The Kremlin can be seen in the distance with Saint Basil’s Cathedral overshadowed by the lime washed walls of the Kremlin wall including Spasskaya Tower to the left.
Viewing this work really does provide a window into the past, not only showing how Moscow looked during the mid-19th century but also through the amazing use of perspective Gaertner has achieved. He has managed to create an almost 3D effect, as if we the viewer are standing on the veranda ourselves. Gaertner might have been aided by a camera obscura, also known as a pinhole camera, when he sketched the layout of his painting. This has long been suggested by art critics although this was never specifically mentioned by Gaertner in his working notes. He did reference a “drafting machine” and some of his sketches were done on tracing paper.
A prelude to the modern camera, it is thought that a number of artists were aided by these optical devices. Canaletto almost certainly used one in Venice, where the camera resides today in the Correr Museum. The camera would project a faint image of a view onto a surface that could then be traced. In order to disguise his use of a mechanical device, Canaletto would adapt the scene creatively. Similarly, Bellotto would often take two or three tracings from the camera obscura of a panorama and combine them to best suit his purpose in to a single picture.
Canaletto’s bold composition London: The City seen through one of the Arches of Westminster Bridge, circa 1746, is an earlier prelude to the effect achieved by Gaertner in his Moscow work. A highlight of the Dulwich ‘Canaletto in England’ exhibition in 2007, Canaletto’s use of the arch placed off centre allows for the viewers eye to focus on the distant architecture around St Paul’s Cathedral; a similar effect achieved by the veranda in Gaertner’s work. This is also helped by the ingenious detail of a bucket hanging from a rope, allowing for the eye to focus on an object in the foreground and creating a clear perspective of the architecture of London under construction in the background.
Would Gaertner have researched Canaletto’s technique? It would be hard to imagine that any artist attempting to paint the architectural landscape would not want to learn from such a master. At the National Gallery of Berlin’s Century Exhibition in 1906, which was instrumental in bringing Gaertner’s works back to public view, his paintings were shown and compared with Canaletto’s pupil Bellotto. Major exhibitions for Gaertner have subsequently been staged in 1968, 1977 and 2001. As the architecture of our major cities increasingly changes, the cityscape will no doubt continue to inspire artists for generations to come. They would do well to learn from such a leading German artist.