The Bishop Heinrich Förster’s collection of paintings
The Wroclaw’s Bishop Heinrich Förster (1799-1881), who held his office between 1853 and 1881, was the most illustrious patron of painting and sacred art, who had ever operated in Silesia within the 19th century.
His activity as collector and founder has to be analyzed in context of Christian art revival which expanded in the German Catholic Church about the mid 19th century. Within that period, an idea of the Church that would be fully responsible for expansion of religious art, gained its ground. The clergy's main assignment concentrated on supporting expansion of contemporary sacred art, which highly contributed to the development of patronage in institutional as well as private domain. Among the clergy who pointificated within the foregoing period in German and Austrian dioceses, a few bishops can be mentioned who regarded art supporting as a significant part of their mission. Cardinal Johannes von Geissel and Bishop Johann Anton Baudri of Cologne, can be mentioned, as well as Bishop Johann Georg Müller of Münster, Bishop Eduard Jakob Wedekin of Hildesheim or Archbishop Joseph Othmar Rauscher of Vienna. The activity of most of them concentrated on supporting Neo-gothic architecture, painting was of their minor interest. For his relish for contemporary German sacred art, was mostly known the Papal nuncio Michele Viale-Prela. The example of the picture collector Viale-Prela is supposed to have been followed by Bishop Förster.
The bishop of Wroclaw's comprehensive activity, which covered also supporting Neo-gothic architecture, has something common with similar activities of other personages linked to the Christian art revival movement. However the Förster’s activity range and his high personal engagement on behalf of sacred art highlight him not only as follower of patterns from other dioceses, but also as one of the main figures of Christian art revival movement in Germany and as one of the most notable Catholic priests collecting pictures.
Basic sources that allow the reconstruction of the non-existent Förster’s collection are two registers of his property. The first, begun in 1840 and recording Förster’s state of property before his entering the bishopric, lists mainly numerous prints. Collecting of prints, as well as Förster’s affiliation to two associations of fine arts’ amateurs, namely to the Schlesischer Kunstverein and Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen sites among the most popular ways of carrying out artistic passions in the 19th century. Only the Förster’s entry on the bishop’s throne in 1853 was the landmark in his activity as art collector. Hence another register was begun in 1854, the one that records – still along with numerous prints – also more than 80 paintings in oil technique.
Förster, while founding sacred paintings and forming his private collection of pictures, purchased many paintings from the Wroclaw’s painters. His commissions were carried out and his collection was enriched mainly by Raphael Schall and Theodor Hamacher. Within the Förster’s patronage also other painters were noted: a protestant Adolph Zimmermann and Carl Wohnlich. However the bishop’s true pride was consigning his commissions to famous sacred artists, linked to prominent European centers, mainly to the representatives of the late Nazarene painters’ group from Düsseldorf. The difference between royalties paid by Förster to Schall or Zimmermann (90-400 thalers), and prices for works by Franz Ittenbach and Carl Müller (500-3000 thalers) clearly confirm the contrast in status of provincial Wroclaw’s painters and the position of Düsseldorf’s artists. Förster’s fascination on works by the latter painters contributed to having imported over a dozen of paintings to Silesia. The register of the bishop’s collection records three canvas paintings by Karl Müller, two by Ittenbach and by one painting by Andreas Müller and Ernst Deger. The late Düsseldorf’s Nazarene painters received from Förster also commissions for altar paintings. Furthermore the bishop possessed in his collection, works by another Düsseldorf’s painter Heinrich Mücke, by the Viennese Leopold Kupelwieser and by the operating in Rome Gebhardt Flatz as well as by the Berliner painters Julius Schrader and Albert Korneck. The Roman painter whose work was nearest to the Nazarene association, was Eduard von Steinle, his work was however represented in Förster’s collection, only by modest depictions painted in ink or watercolor.
Along with about 50 religious paintings the Förster’s private collection included more than 20 landscapes and about 10 portraits which seem to testify that the bishop wasn’t solely fond of the “engaged” Christian art but also of “pure” painting. Sparsely was however represented older painting in the bishop’s collection. The collections were partly housed in the Wroclaw’s Episcopal Palace, partly in the castle of Javorník, adorning the public, as well as private rooms of both residences.
The lack of interest in collecting older artworks and the bishop’s openness for the output of secular trends in contemporary painting, distances Förster to some extent, from the Christian art revival movement and allows perceiving him not only as a founder bearing the Church’s welfare, but also as a willful recipient, materializing his own aesthetic needs. As an amateur and connoisseur of painting who discerningly analyzed the works’ artistic value, Förster appears in his letters to Ittenbach and to Karl Müller. These letters allow the revocation of Förster’s ideas on art, which were essentially near to ideas that were welcomed in contemporary milieus of Christian art amateurs, but the same letters also testify the bishop’s particularly personal approach to the works he commissioned.
The collection disperses after the bishop’s death. The bishop divided, basing on his testament, most of the paintings between churches, monasteries, sacred offices and residences of the Wroclaw’s diocese and also between private owners, the remaining – normally the less precious ones – were sold. So far 13 artworks that formerly belonged to the collection, among them mainly the works by Ittenbach and by Karl and Andreas Müller, have been found and identified.
The decision to divide the collection, has to be seen in context of the contemporarily standing idea of Christian art. The bishop, although the aesthetic motifs and personal ambitions were of particular significance for him, wasn’t striving to preserve his private collection as a whole, but rather agreed for its disperse, since the religious paintings collected by him, could only have fulfilled their true devotional mission, if they had been housed in the interiors of sacred buildings.
The paintings from the private collection, which were appreciated for their high artistic level and whose destiny was properly perceived in their devotional functions in temple, illustrate glaringly the ambivalence that regards also other 19th century artistic donations linked to the Christian art revival. The postulate of returning to the sacred art, its original status from the middle ages, when its range had been determined by liturgical and devotional aims, didn’t by any means result in returning to the “medieval” period, but on the contrary – resulted in aesthetizing a sacred interior. An interior, full of artworks, turned to be a sort of “museum” or “gallery”. The donator instead, engaged in the renaissance of devotional role of paintings, didn’t give up the approach that would have had a sensible 19th century connoisseur.
Archiwum Archidiecezjalne we Wrocławiu (Archdiocesal Archive in Wroclaw), Group: Bishop Försters Records, sign. I A 22 c 11 (Inventarium meines Eigenthums – angelegt im Jahre 1840, fortgesetzt in den folgenden Jahren); sygn. I A 22 c 12 (Inventarium meines Eigenthums – angelegt im Jahre 1854, fortgesetzt in den folgenden Jahren).
Alfons Nowack, Fürstbischof Heinrich Förster als Mäzen der bildenden Künste, In: "Archiv für schlesische Kirchengeschichte", 2 (1937), pp. 207-218.
Joanna Lubos-Kozieł, „Wiarą tchnące obrazy”. Studia z dziejów malarstwa religijnego na Śląsku w XIX wieku (Acta Universitatis Wratislaviensis No 2662, Historia Sztuki XVIII), Wrocław 2004.
Joanna Lubos-Kozieł, Sbírka obrazů biskupa Heinricha Förstera a její pozůstatky na zámku Jánský Vrch, In: „Jesenicko. Vlastivědný sborník”, V (2004), pp. 20-30.