Date:November 25 – December 1852
Place: Prague, Žofín Palace
Organizer:Fine Arts Association
Louis Gallait profoundly influenced not only the debate about how to depict national history in modern times, but also the overall approach to history painting in Europe. This debate was opened in the 1840s, most notably by the travelling exhibition featuring two examples of Belgian history painting, The Abdication of Charles V by Louis Gallait and The Compromise of the Dutch Nobles by his colleague Edouard de Bièfve, which were shown in several cultural centres in Europe. Prague was somewhat slow to react to this new trend in history painting – it did not exhibit any of Gallait’s paintings (or works by other representatives of Belgian history painting) until 1852.
Belgian history painting attracted the attention of the European art world beginning in 1832, when Belgium gained its independence, and history painting came to be seen as a means of renewing national and cultural identity. In the 1830s, the Dutch painter Gustav Wappers transcended Neoclassicism in his paintings from the Belgian Revolution and others, such as Gallait and De Bièfve, followed suit. The latter artists then influenced the historical genre beyond the borders of Belgium. Belgian history painting, with its emphasis on light and colour, drew mainly on Rubens, but also on the Renaissance masters. The Munich school, Belgium’s “rival” in the field of history painting, generated its own new style, mostly inspired by French art and represented by Karl Piloty, one of the most important pedagogues at the Munich Academy. Piloty had many followers in Munich, but Gallait was equally influential in Germany, thanks in particular to the aforementioned touring exhibition. Between 1842 and 1844, the two paintings by Gallait and De Bièfve were presented in prominent European cities such as Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, Munich and others, becoming a milestone of sorts that transformed the concept of history painting and awakened interest in historical realism. It was in response to these Belgian paintings that critics began to voice opposition to the Nazarene style of painting, pointing to its emphasis on local colours and the lack of strong content and monumentality. The paintings by both the Belgian painters, with their grand historical scenes drawing from the Flemish painterly tradition were valued primarily for their “historical illusionism,” a quality that the paintings by the “Munich Realists” lacked [Theinhardtová 2001, Blažíčková-Horová 1996].
Prague joined this discussion in 1846, when Anton Springer wrote that the famous paintings by Gallait and De Bièfve presented a blow to the Munich style of painting, especially because of their richness, lively compositions and colours [Theinhardtová 2001]. Springer made this comment in connection with the annual exhibition of Krasoumná jednota (Fine Arts Association), which featured Christian Ruben’s Columbus Discovers the Shores of America (1846) – it was precisely Ruben’s school that represented historical realism and historical illusionism in Bohemia. The talent for emphasizing form over content, however, distinguished the Belgian school from the rest of Europe, making Antwerp and Brussels centres of artistic education (other than Paris), especially in the field of history painting, which was still considered the most prestigious subject matter in art. At the height of his fame, Louis Gallait was much admired in the Czech academic milieu. Artists travelled to Belgium to study history painting in his studio: Jaroslav Čermák, for example, moved to Belgium in 1849 following his studies in Düsseldorf and Munich to become Gallait’s first and most prominent student before he left for Paris in 1852.
At the beginning of the 1850s, a new phenomenon appeared in the Czech art world – the exhibition of a single painting. Krasoumná jednota made it a part of its annual exhibitions, beginning in 1851 with Paul Delaroche’s painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1850), followed one year later by The Brussels Rifle Club Pay Their Last Respects to the Earls of Egmont and Horn (1851) by Louis Gallait. Gallait’s work was borrowed from an unspecified private collection and exhibited at Žofín at the end of 1852, a few months after Gallait visited Prague with his student, Jaroslav Čermák [anonymous author 1852]. The exhibition was open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Brussels Rifle Club Pay Their Last Respects to the Earls of Egmont and Horn (1851) caught the attention of experts and the lay public alike; the show was well attended and received with great enthusiasm. Art critics naturally reviewed it – the magazine Lumír, for example, published an extensive commentary praising particularly the meticulous depiction of the deceased noblemen. They appear, says the reviewer, as if “the death itself painted them” [J. G. 1852]. Further on, the text compares Gallait's attention to detail and his perfection in drawing, modelling and painting to the best works of the Rubens school – these were also the qualities for which Gallait was praised all over Europe. The reviewer praises Gallait’s work with light and colour and his way of depicting minute anatomical details such as veins under the pale skin. Each of the figures bears individual features in movement and facial expression, reflecting their mental state. The reviewer concludes by comparing Gallait’s painting to works by local artists, which he describes as rigid compared to the vivid colours of the Munich school, although, as he says, the Czech art scene could also pride itself on many talented artists.
Gallait’s exhibition was an important example of a one-painting show, an exhibition type established by Krasoumná jednota at the beginning of the 1850s. This particular show was significant because it introduced the Prague public to the latest trend in history painting, much discussed in contemporary Europe.
Anonymous author 1852: Anonymous author, Z Prahy, Lumír II, 1852, no. 39, 7. 10., p. 934
Blažíčková-Horová 1996: Naděžda Blažíčková-Horová (ed.), Dějiny v obrazech: historické náměty v umění 19. století v Čechách (exh. cat.), Praha 1996, pp. 37–39
J. G. 1852: J. G., Gallaitův obraz: „Bruxelský střelecký sbor prokazuje hrabatům Egmontovi a Hornovi poslední úctu“, Lumír II, 1852, no. 18 (supplement), 2. 12., pp. 69–71
Theinhardtová 2001: Markéta Theinhardtová, Historická malba, in: Taťána Petrasová – Helena Lorenzová (edd.), Dějiny českého výtvarného umění III/1, Praha 2001, pp. 326–332
J. G., Gallaitův obraz: „Bruxelský střelecký sbor prokazuje hrabatům Egmontovi a Hornovi poslední úctu“, Lumír II, 1852, no. 18 (supplement), 2. 12., pp. 69–71pdf
Anonymous author, Znamenitý obraz Ludvíka Gallaita..., Lumír II, 1852, no. 48, 2. 12., p. 1150
Anonymous author, Z Prahy, Lumír II, 1852, no. 39, 7. 10., p. 934; no. 44, 4. 11., p. 1054; no. 47, 25. 11., p. 1126