AWhen the Thirty Years’ War broke out, Wolfgang Heimbach was five years old. He was ten when the focus of the fighting shifted to northern Germany and near the county of Oldenburg. When Heimbach returned from the Netherlands to his birthplace Övelgönne near Bremen in 1636 after five years of training as a painter, the conflict escalated again with the entry of France. The Catholic Heimbach spent the devastating final phase of the war in Italy, while twenty years later he witnessed the campaigns of the Munster Prince-Bishop Christoph Bernhard von Galen against the Netherlands as a court artist at close range. When he died in Osnabrück in 1679, the Dutch War, in which France, Sweden, Spain and England also took part, had just ended. The peace lasted four years, then the cannons thundered again.
Despite this biography, which is darkened by gun smoke and blood, the war plays almost no role in Heimbach’s paintings. Only once, on the picture horizon of an equestrian portrait of the Danish King Frederick, does he show a battle as a distant spectacle. Finally, in the penultimate year of his life, Heimbach painted a “guard room with officers playing cards”, in which the instruments of killing, armour, helmets, pistols, lie scattered on the floor like junk. Beer is drunk and money is gambled by the fireplace behind it. A servant hangs a sword on a nail on the wall. One could think that the world is whole again.
Instead of pictures of battles, Heimbach paints everything that is not war: engagements, banquets, Bible stories, rural idylls, nocturnal interiors, nude scenes, double and single portraits. He prefers to tell several stories in one picture. His main work “Evening Inn with Beggars” shows no fewer than forty-five figures, including seven beggars, some of whom have already received their alms, some of whom are still walking shyly and humbly from table to table, hat in hand. Meanwhile, the guests are shown at different stages of the tasting process: Some are just ordering their food, others are already feasting and chatting with full cheeks, and others are already paying. In the front right, venison turns on a skewer, plates are filled with meat and vegetables. But although there is plenty of movement, open mouths, smiling faces and clattering cutlery, there is a conspicuous stillness about the scene, as if the whole tavern had stood still for an endless moment for the painter.
In the exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in Münster, the second stage of a project developed jointly with the Landesmuseum in Oldenburg, the biographical background to this silence is only mentioned in passing: Heimbach was deaf and mute. The court chronicler of Count Anton Günther of Oldenburg wrote that he was “quite thoughtful and observant”, could also read lips and “understand prescribed words with a finger” about the fifty-year-old painter, who returned to his homeland after a long stay in Austria, Italy and Denmark has returned. While he portrayed kings, viceroys, archdukes, grand dukes and even Pope Innocent X in Rome, Naples, Florence, Copenhagen and Vienna with a sure line, a broad palette and a slightly rigid pose, here Heimbach is content with the moderate fees of a provincial prince whose The countenance of old age he impressively captures in large and small format pictures.
But he doesn’t stay long. When Anton Günther, who once financed his education, dies in 1667, Heimbach travels to Denmark again, but this time Friedrich III lets him. rebuff. Returning to Germany, he finds shelter with the Münster prince-bishop, for whom he paints one of his popular portraits on horseback, but also a “Baptism of Christ on the Jordan”. His masterpiece from this period, however, is the “Meal still life with a maid behind a window”, a virtuoso mixture of three Dutch genres: night piece, still life and trompe-l’oeil. The maid peers out of the dark background of the picture through a lattice window, the broken pane of which lights up her right eye, at an assortment of meat, cheese, fruit, bread, salt, beer and a Roman wine. In her greed she clutches the window frame with all ten fingers. It is the attitude of a fox before the leap.
In such magic and in interiors such as the “Evening Entertainment by the Fireplace” Heimbach showed what he had learned from the Dutch: the lighting of the Caravaggists, the materiality of the Delft School, the scenic tricks of the peasant painters. He was less adept at depicting female nudity, as his “Bathers” painted for Count Anton Günther shows, and his biblical histories also appear sweet and stiff. For earlier art historians, who clung to the masters from Holland and Italy and their students from southern Germany, that was enough to make Heimbach’s work forget. The fact that he is now being rediscovered, at least in a regional context, shows that the genius discourse is not enough to understand the art of the early modern period.
To paraphrase a sentence by Alexander Kluge: the closer you look at art history, the farther back it looks. In the case of Heimbach, who had to serve many genres with limited resources in order to assert himself in the world of the high baroque, she seems to wink at us: here, too, beauty is at work. You just have to embrace their quieter splendor.
Wolfgang Heimbach. A German Baroque painter at European courts. At the LWL Museum for Art and Culture Münster, until December 4th. The catalog costs 29 euros.