Johann Gottfried Schadow. Embracing Forms

Johann Gottfried Schadow. Berührende Formen, Ausstellungsansicht, Alte Nationalgalerie, 2022 (c) Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (c) Thomas Bruns

Johann Gottfried Schadow. Berührende Formen / Embracing Forms
Exhibition, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 21 October 2022 – 19 February 2023. Catalogue: Yvette Desyve with Sintje Guericke, eds, Johann Gottfried Schadow: Berührende Formen, Berlin and Munich: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Hirmer Verlag GmbH, 2022
ISBN 978-3-7774-4086-6 (German edition)
ISBN 978-3-7774-4087-3 (English edition)

Entering the exhibition about the German Neo-Classical sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764 – 1850) at the Berlin Nationalgalerie, a visitor may expect to find at its centre the famous group of the two Prussian Princesses Luise and Friederike (1796 – 1797). Today this is Schadow’s best known work, save, one might argue, the Quadriga on top of the Brandenburg Gate, the reception of which, however, often dissolves into that of the monument it crowns. 

To find themselves confronted with two apparently identical copies of the double portrait nevertheless may take many by surprise. The exhibition organizers have pushed this experience of two times two even further by lining the gallery with mirrors. At the entrance, a series of busts of the two Prussian princesses expands on the themes of duplication and serialization.

The unexpected second group is Schadow’s full-scale plaster model which has recently been conserved and restored. Following sculptural practice of his time, Schadow used this model to display at low cost the appearance of a future marble to the intended patron and a wider public. Once accepted, the model would enable Schadow’s assistants to do most of the carving, while also serving for further reproduction in a variety of media. In 1889 the plaster itself was recognized as a work of art and acquired by the Nationalgalerie. In the exhibition both model and final marble are cleverly positioned so as to enable the viewer to compare them from all sides with the help of the mirrors.

A comparison between the plaster and a drawing of its first appearance reveals alterations, and the viewer is encouraged to find evidence for these changes in the model itself. A piece of drapery, modelled in plaster, is nailed onto the back of the figure of Luise on the left, motivating the pose of her right hand which originally held a basket. The separate busts in the gallery also relate to the processes of making: Schadow modelled the princesses’ heads separately for later insertion into the figures. They were also reproduced individually and sold in various media, including plaster and porcelain. As the visitors proceed through the exhibition, they learn about Schadow’s life, his vast and impressive output in Prussia and abroad, sculptural techniques, academic research, and reception. But the topics raised in this first major room come up again and again, giving this show a particularly engaging coherence and clear focus.

In 1785 Schadow, like many artists of his time, went to Rome where he studied ancient sculpture and engaged with the city’s international artists community. Among several sculptural precedents for the rendering of two figures in a friendly embrace, the exhibition highlights the ancient San Ildefonso Group, representing either Orestes and Pylades or Castor and Pollux. It is present in the form of a plaster cast. Other relating studies include sketches of young women striding forward, their garments blowing in the wind. These drawings remind one of similar studies after life by the British sculptor John Flaxman, made during his sojourn in Rome (1787-94). 

It caused a stir in 1786 when Schadow, a young Prussian, won the second prize of the Roman Accademia di San Luca with his group Perseus and Andromeda. This success could have paved the way for more international acclaim in Rome, but Schadow focused on his Prussian connections and succeeded brilliantly. Eventually he was ordered to return to Berlin where he obtained extensive commissions, gained the position of court sculptor in 1788 and became the leading German sculptor of his day. In 1816 he became director of the Berlin Academy of Fine Art.

Schadow’s research on the proportions of the human body is a problematic chapter. Visitors can flick through a facsimile of Schadow’s 1834 publication Polyclet, in which he presents the results of his studies and provides a history of treatises and publications on this topic from Ancient Greece to his own time, an account that impresses through its breadth. The problematic nature of his own research on human proportions comes particularly to the fore in the 1835 National-Physiognomien, in which he presents a racist differentiation of physiognomy by nation. In the exhibition, this is critically and sensitively presented and framed in relation to Schadow’s sculptural representations of black sitters. To what extent these notions might also relate to his rendering of white European sitters and Neo-classical marble sculpture in general is an issue the exhibition leaves to the visitor to consider.

The recent conservation of the plaster model for the Two Princesses was a major undertaking. An impressive and imaginative touchscreen display provides access to its documentation and insights into recent examinations of both groups with digital 3D technology. Nearby exhibits situate this in the context of treatments of plaster in Schadow’s time, while the following display of models in wax, terracotta and plaster, as well as preparatory drawings redirects the focus to Schadow’s workshop practice.

The fate of Schadow’s Two Princesses which, because of its intimate informality, was removed from public viewing by Luise’s husband, King Frederick William III, anticipated the later decline of Schadow’s fame, which, as quoted by the organisers, ‘went up in smoke’, ‘smoke’ in German being Rauch. Christian Daniel Rauch (1777 – 1857) was Schadow’s student who in his master’s later years outshone his teacher. It was not before the 1909 Centenary Exhibition of German art (Jahrhundertausstellung) organised by the then Director of the Gemäldegalerie Heinrich von Tschudi, that Schadow was recognized as one of the most important artists of his period. The final part of the exhibition explores Schadow’s fortuna critica and traces responses to his iconic group up to the present. A large room positions the iconography of the sisterly embrace in the context of painted portraiture with special emphasis on eighteenth- and early nineteenth century Britain and Gainsborough and Reynolds in particular. The wider issue of Schadow and Great Britain is picked up again in the catalogue which impresses as a publication in its own right through scholarly essays dedicated to the issues raised by the exhibition.

Outside the exhibition, the Gemäldegalerie displays a major monument by Schadow from Berlin’s Dorotheenkirche, the multi-figure tomb monument for eight-year-old Count Alexander von der Mark (1790). A military helmet, never worn, lies next to the head of the young boy. Carved in marble its shell is wafer-thin, the empty void facing the beholder; a detail, as emotionally haunting as it is technically breath-taking.   

Johann Gottfried Schadow, Grabmal des Grafen Alexander von der Mark, 1788–1790, Marmor, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Andres Kilger

Cite this blog post
Eckart Marchand (2022, December 5). Johann Gottfried Schadow. Embracing Forms. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved March 3, 2024, from

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