Georg Ferdinand Waldmüller, born in 1793, was a Viennese painter on a noble mission to capture nature, apolitically and commonplace. His paintings, particularly their color schemes and subject matter, can serve as a symbol of the ideal mindset of contentedness as the middle-class grows, during what is now referred to as the Biedermeier period. With it his work encourages appreciation for the beauty in daily life during this time, a period situated carefully between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the eventual European revolutions in 1848. This work can be best understood as a product his time’s reverence for the sugary-sweet and sentimental, reflecting the fleeting sense of home and shifting allegiances, where the comfort of family and country appeals to the average Austrian now more than ever. The vignettes that he is most known for tell stories of intimate domestic life in the beginning of the nineteenth century, with an ever-increasing adherence to visual truth over time, and who also allowed–foreshadowing hedonism to come–a sort of sensory basking in the glory of the at least comparatively good times. By documenting with oils, he along his Biedermeier counterparts ensure that there will be proof of these everyday pleasantries immortalized, foreign to a chaotic and aristocratic Vienna, worth being proud of and worth one’s time to render realistically remembering all the details. While Waldmüller may have hoped to make art that was not overtly “political”, ironically part of the significance of these paintings is that they become a good window into the trademark political peacefulness of this society anyway (helped by a sort of tunnel vision) and as liberalism brews, reinforce that though home life may be a private matter and should stay that way, there are parallels between all households found in these beautifully mundane details. That relative societal tranquility would go on to affect the aesthetics of future art movements and subsequent attitudes in Austria and beyond; life imitates art, art imitates life, even without necessarily wanting or trying to.
By the early 19th century, Napoleon had collected victories across Europe and with it, putative proof of the vast reach of his empire. Unearthed and recycled are the styles of Classicism incarnated in Greek vases and furniture, Roman and Pompeii frescoes, among others brought back as trophies of his great conquest and legendary aristocratic power. During this time, Waldmüller is studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and has a supposed atypical take on the formalities of academia, earning him the title of “primal secessionist” by future scholars uninterested in the hierarchy. His work becomes increasingly realistic over time as he spends his days learning the techniques of old masters, and because of this style he will also later be categorized as a Neo-Classicist painter. Beginning in portraiture, Waldmüller was meticulous, particularly focusing on capturing sunlight as learned from his mentor Caspar David Friedrich, capturing nature not Nature. Unlike Friedrich and his predecessors, interpretation of light is not religiously based for Waldmüller but rather focused on human nature and the radiance within shown through mannerisms of his subjects and atmospherically realistic landscapes. Natural observation and a surprisingly secular take serve him well in explaining the missed nuances of rural life and he is able to moralize humankind in a way that is approachable and obvious. It is feel good type of art, a fairly new idea and an artistic bridge between Romanticism or feeling over reason, to function over form. It is homebaked, private, conservative, happy and therefore safe–characterizing it as distinctly Biedermeier, where it will later breed into modern styles and a new audience for the arts in general.
With enough time passed, elite academics can call passings of time whatever they want, clump patterns of whatever seems relevant to those naming it and have it remembered that way as a movement; in this way, knowing the art period’s etymology can summarize both the work and the eventual reaction to it. “Biedermeier” (1815-1848) is known best for its furniture style and visual art though it is sometimes also referred to as Vormärz or literally “pre March”, a more straightforward title for this chunk of time and usually used more in the context of literary movements. However, more catchy and fun to say and especially articulate when discussing Waldmüller’s work, was the name drawn from pop culture; the newspaper comic known as “Papa Gottfried Biedermeier” where “Gott” means God, “fried” means peace, “Bieder” means ordinary, and “Meier” means steward, regionally one of the most common surnames. Biedermeier as a character was a blessed but painfully normal and politically conventional example of the unsophisticated middle class, a somewhat derogatory title fit for capturing the essence of the time after the fact, that just so happened to stick better. No matter what the scholars call it either way, the mood was a unique combination of a shifting German Confederation with political conservatism and censorship under Clemens Wenzel von Metternich, paired with liberalism which was a product of new wealth and self esteem among the growing urban middle class made possible by an industrializing Europe. Though politics were not to be discussed under the guise of politeness and stability, the hushed and increasingly resentful working class undeniably clashed and had nowhere to put their frustrations. Torn between young nation lines and what feels like nationalism, between firm public policy hoping to restore order and strong internal desire to live freely, the style of Biedermeier reflects this inclination among the average Austrian to generally turn inward to communities convenient and domestic, safe spaces. It is no coincidence that during this same time the Burschenschaften, student fraternities formed in Germany inspired by patriotism, will form and emerge from underground to meet the working class and demand Metternich to step down. A then appointed Kaiser Ferdinand will bring in new leadership to the region and with it more liberal ideas, ushering in the end of this time period.
If your parlor is political oasis, the aesthetic of your furniture becomes much more symbolic, and now the Biedermeier style is literally in the home instead of just depicting it particularly in the petit bourgeois. Not surprising in a place where politeness and graciousness are valued and where the waltz flourished, visiting for dinners is special and gathering beauty in the form of interior design is valuable in ways it was not before. An identity shaped around the self-awareness of class in Austria and Germany but not yet self-indulgent, is manifested in the furniture of this time, shown in its durable, heavy forms and simplified reinterpretation of classic shapes known to be regal. It is functionally and aesthetically reliable, making use of local materials in stark contrast to the conservative but outsourced taste of the aristocrats. Smoothly polished, Biedermeier furniture honored the grain of the wood, arguably representative of the relationships with the places whose trees were mahogany, and demonstrated a direct artisan to owner economy, reminiscent of the intimacy and warmth of Waldmüller.
By creating you are innately given the gift of being able to validate your small sliver of history, and being an artist means ultimately knowing you fit into a time period and to some extent that your work will at least appear reactionary to your environment by future historians, like it or not. Overtime, especially with the introduction of the photograph, nineteenth century artists will learn and show history that accuracy is not necessarily progress. A belief in “truth in material” would be progress to some, and others will see ornateness as a representation of self-importance. By the time of Waldmüller’s death in 1865, the Ringstrasse is built in a more self-sufficient Vienna and she is on the road to becoming more efficient and modern. Architect Adolf Loos will later respond, echoing the dangers of ornament and help bring in Bauhaus at the end of the nineteenth century and with the synthesis of a love of craft, technology, and art. Around this time Klimt will take off, also a secessionist (but not “primal”), and his reintroduction of ornateness will present hedonistic attitudes without judgment or critique. helping to liberate Austrian art in its eroticism, as opposed to the modest intimacy Waldmüller painted in the Biedermeier period, very distant though warm.
Waldmüller’s work can show that artifacts however innocuous in subject matter embody a culture’s meaning and are products of their historical and institutionalized contexts, as well as their artworld’s situation in the greater canon–Austrian or otherwise. Still, it is privilege of the modern to render accuracy in their medium, via the amount of pixels in their photographs or by the quality of their brushstrokes; his paintings reflect how the time after Congress of Vienna brought in more depictions of middle-class family life’s pleasantries, and can also be seen as a bigger representation of how identity and aesthetics changed as a result of the era’s perceived tranquility.
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