One of my favorite paintings at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery is George Grosz’s The Wanderer. It’s a sobering image of a man carrying a cane and clutching his coat to his chest as he trudges through a wilderness mire, fleeing explosions and fire behind him. The picture was painted in 1943, during World War II, ten years after George Grosz fled Hitler’s Germany.
Maybe there’s nothing to this. But earlier this year, when I ran across Wanderer in the Storm, an 1835 painting by the German romantic painter Julius von Leypold in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was reminded of Grosz’s painting right away. In von Leypold’s picture, a wanderer trudges through a stormy, late-autumn landscape, clutching his coat to his chest. The posture of the wanderers is similar, though the figure in Grosz’s picture is much larger, is hatless, and faces the viewer, while von Leypold’s Wanderer presses ahead, against the wind, with his back to us.
Could Grosz have been familiar with von Leypold’s picture? One can assume that Grosz, who studied and worked in Berlin until he left Germany, was familiar with the 19th-century German masters. Indeed, the German expressionists, and Grosz was one of them, are said to have especially admired Caspar David Friedrich and his fellow German romanticists.
Consider for example, Friedrich’s Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, painted in 1834 about the same time as von Leypold’s picture. Both of these feature anonymous cloaked figures in forbidding landscapes; it’s easy to see they’re part of the same school.
But my research so far hasn’t come up with a link any more stronger than this: (a) the two paintings have the same title, (b) the solitary figures have similar poses, and (c) Grosz and von Leypold are both Germans, and (d) Grosz can be assumed to have been influenced by the school of romanticism to which von Leypold belonged. The Met seems to have acquired the von Leypold picture just this year, 2008. Who owned it before that? Was it somewhere Grosz could have seen it?
Grosz’s picture at the Memorial Art Gallery isn’t hard to interpret, since the painter himself was an exile and the figure in the painting is a self-portrait. As he painted this scene, Grosz knew that Allied bombs were falling on his native land. By 1943, Grosz was an American citizen who hadn’t lost any of his contempt for Hitler, as is apparent from another of his “apocalyptic” pictures of the early 1940s, which he helpfully entitled Hitler in Hell, lest a viewer mistake his point of view.
Can von Leypold’s picture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art be given a similar socio-political interpretation? So far, I don’t know. The “world war” of von Leypold’s day, the Napoleonic wars, had been over for nearly two decades when his Wanderer was painted. But what was the political climate in Dresden, where von Leypold worked, in the mid-1830s? Did von Leypold, very likely a liberal, see himself as a stranger in a strange land, running against the wind, during the reaction that set in across Europe after the demise of Napoleon? Were von Leypold’s political or social views reflected in his art? We will study more.