A scholarly look through the Metaphysics section of one’s library might not be the most prescient aspect of this wonderful painting, but I urge you to bear with me while I make up my mind on why I’ve chosen the above as a title to this post. Carl Spitzweg was a German poet and painter. This work was completed circa 1850, which you’ll know is my favourite period in art. This painting offers us a humour introspective into 19th Century scholarly Europe, let’s look at it in some more detail.
The painting is representative of the introspective and conservative mood in Europe during the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the revolutions of 1848, but at the same time pokes fun at those attitudes by embodying them in the fusty old scholar unconcerned with the affairs of the mundane world. Wikipedia
In terms of context, this was painted two years after the 1848 European Revolutions, which “series of republican revolts against European monarchies, beginning in Sicily, and spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. They all ended in failure and repression, and were followed by widespread disillusionment among liberals.” Britannica. (Apologies for the referencing, one can take the boy out of Warwick University…) So we can see this painting in its historical context was perhaps poking fun at this scholar for attempting to find solace and enlightenment in a dimly lit, untidy library. This is further hinted at by the faded globe in the left hand corner of the painting. The idea that the globe is shoved in a corner of the room, unseen and seemingly covered in dust shows our scholar had little interest in world events.
Looking at the detail of the painting, notice the central shaft of light showing us the focal point is indeed our scholar. I love a spotlight. At the risk of sounding self-referential, the use of light is rather reminiscent of the Pieter de Hooch paintings at the Prinsenhof gallery at Delft. Two further observations: firstly, observe how closely our scholar is peering at his current tome. Now look at how he is holding another in his free hand and a third in between his legs! I love this humorous criticism of our scholar. Finally, observe at how to gold spines of the books shine in the light. This I suppose highlights the high quality of the books from which our scholar is learning.
Overall I think this is a delightful painting which highlights the dangers of ignoring your global context. This painting says to me that there is importance in balancing one’s intellectual pursuits with awareness and contribution to more global issues. Indeed this insular insight into scholarly life reflects on all of us. I think it is a lovely painting and I hope it has brightened your day somewhat.