Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Great Master of the Standard Issue Jesus

That would be the 19th century German painter Heinrich Hofmann who painted one of the world's most famous and frequently copied pictures, Christ in Gethsemane, now housed here in New York in Riverside Church.

I know almost nothing about this artist other than he had some kind of connection to the "Nazarenes," a group of German Catholic artists living in Rome in the early 19th century. They called themselves the Lucasbund, the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, taking vows of celibacy and poverty. They wanted to restore a kind of late medieval, early Renaissance "purity" to religious art. They were very similar in many respects to the PreRaphaelites. Like the PreRaphaelites, they liked to work with archaic media like egg-tempera.
Hofmann's work looks nothing like the Nazarenes to my eye. It's much closer to Italian Baroque painting like Guido Reni and Carlo Dolci. If he knew any of the Nazarenes, it would have to be from the later generations of the movement, someone like Peter Von Cornelius. I don't think Hofmann was Catholic, but any artist working on religious subject matter in 19th century Germany would have had some experience with Cornelius.

Hoffman created the soulful, earnest, cleaned up Aryan Jesus that is still the favorite of institutional imagery for both Protestants and Catholics. I had to copy this guy's work when I worked briefly for a stained glass company. Hofmann's Jesus is the nice clean young man made for bourgeois tastes, who says or does nothing to disturb the sensibilities of bankers and shopkeepers.

I will say one thing for Hofmann, he was a far better painter than Warner Sallman, the other master of the Standard Issue Jesus, the one I knew in Methodist Sunday school.

Here are a couple of other examples of Hofmann's work.

I could be wrong, but I believe that the originals for all of the above are currently in Riverside Church.

Hofmann's work, more than any other artist's, represents established tradition for so many people. It's probably his paintings that spring to most people's minds when they hear the word "Jesus." His paintings are what people grew up with. It seems to me that so much traditional religious imagery Once Received By All the Saints began in the 19th century.


Counterlight said...

From a strictly technical point of view, he was really a fine painter.

JCF said...

It seems to me that so much traditional religious imagery Once Received By All the Saints began in the 19th century.

Ironically, so did their sexual ethics (i.e., couldn't condemn "homosexuality" until that word was invented then).