European Sculpture & Works of Art

Johann Dannecker’s Tender Tribute to his Wife

By Merel Deinema
Sotheby’s July sale of Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art presents a rare Neoclassical masterpiece by renowned German sculptor Johann Heinrich von Dannecker. The marble, recently rediscovered after being last seen in 1909, presents a tale of love and mourning, and was once part of the private collection of one of the richest private collectors in the Netherlands.

T he marble, with smooth surfaces and elegant lines, shows a young woman mourning over the dead bird she is holding cupped in one hand. The subject is from antiquity: the Roman poet Catullus wrote about his lover, who he called Lesbia. While in the first poem about Lesbia, the sparrow is playful and full of life, Lesbia is mourning the death of her pet in a later poem: Passer mortuus est meae puellae, writes Catullus, 'my girl's sparrow is dead'. The marble shows the tranquil emotion of the girl, exuding a warm serenity.

When Dannecker first modelled the plaster for Lesbia and her Sparrow in 1790, he had just returned from extended travels to Rome, where he met Antonio Canova and was thoroughly inspired by the reigning taste for Neoclassicism. In the same year, he had met and fallen in love with his first wife, Heinrike Rapp. A likeness can easily be seen between a portrait of Heinrike and Lesbia. It is therefore likely that Dannecker had a very emotional attachment to this sculpture. He did not execute the sculpture in marble until much later, in 1836, at 78 years old. According to an 1841 obituary, Dannecker had been resolved to execute the Lesbia in marble before his death. Was this perhaps meant as a tribute to his wife, who had passed away in 1823? Dannecker’s tenacity, at this point of advanced age and failing health, is remarkable.

Christian Gottlieb Schick, Heinrike Dannecker. © Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie

In 1838, three years before the sculptor’s death, he was visited by Dutch banker Adriaan van der Hoop. Van der Hoop was one of the wealthiest people of his time, a banker and collector, and by this point had an extensive private collection, mostly compiled of paintings and drawings. Dannecker had many royal and noble patrons, including the Netherlandish Royal House of Orange, and Van der Hoop may have been inspired by their patronage. Our Lesbia, dated 1836, must have already been finished but still present in the sculptor’s studio at this time. Adriaan van der Hoop, however, returned to Amsterdam having only purchased a marble relief, and Lesbia stayed where she was. The reason why Van der Hoop did not buy Lesbia at this point can only be speculated on, but it is a possibility that Dannecker had not wanted to part with the sculpture during his lifetime, being too attached to it due to the connection with his first wife.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as The Jewish Bride, 1665-69. © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In 1842, Adriaan van der Hoop returned to Stuttgart, and in this instance was successful in the purchase of Lesbia and her Sparrow, acquired from Dannecker’s estate through his widow - Dannecker had died in December 1841, aged 83. From Van der Hoop’s meticulous records, today held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, we know the purchase cost him a total of 3380,60 guilders and he proudly stated this to be ‘the last work by the deceased sculptor’. Adriaan van der Hoop himself died twelve years later in 1854. Upon his death, he bequeathed his entire collection of paintings and drawings, a total of 250 pieces, to the City of Amsterdam, with a disclaimer that they should be on public view in a museum. The City of Amsterdam placed the paintings in the Rijksmuseum on long-term loan in 1885, where they have remained since. The collection includes some of the most visited and loved paintings in the Rijksmuseum, including Rembrand’t Jewish Bride, Vermeer’s Woman reading a letter and Ruysdael’s Mill at Wijk bij Duurstede.

Huize Spaarnberg in Santpoort, circa 1906

Van der Hoop’s sculptures, most importantly his two Danneckers, located in his country estate Huize Spaarnberg in Santpoort, near Haarlem in the Netherlands, were excluded from the bequest, and remained in the collection of Van der Hoop’s heirs: first his spouse Dieuwke Fontein, and then by descent to her granddaughter, the Baroness Olga Emma Alexandra Eleonora von Gotsch. It is in her collection, together with her husband Justus Wüste, where the marble is last seen in 1909 by Dannecker’s biographer Adolf Spemann. This high society couple was friends with the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi) who actually spent a few months with them in Huize Spaarnberg in 1884, and is therefore likely to have seen the Lesbia as well.

After the Baroness Olga’s death in 1924, the marble miraculously survived a rather tumultuous period, in which the villa of its original setting, Huize Spaarnberg, served as a military base during World War II, and was then turned into a seminary. The villa was eventually destroyed in 1951, but the marble is likely to have been moved beforehand to nearby Villa Spaarnheuvel, which was owned by a religious order. Afterwards, it must have been moved again, and was then acquired by a private collector in 1989, who bought it as part of the contents of a house. Offered for sale in 2 July’s sale of Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art, more than a century after its disappearance, the marble is now once again recognised for its importance as a remarkable survival of Neoclassical sculpture of outstanding quality, executed by a supremely talented sculptor who seemed to have had a close personal attachment to the piece.

The author is grateful to Drs Carole Denninger for her invaluable assistance with the research for this lot.

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