Hans Makart - Biography and Legacy
Austrian Painter, Designer, and Decorator
Biography of Hans Makart
"Hans" Johann Evangelist Ferdinand Apolinaris Makart was born to Johann Makart and Maria Katharina Rüssemayr in Salzburg in 1840. His father, a failed painter, worked as the chamberlain of the Mirabell Palace, the home of the powerful Prince-Archbishops. Little is known about Makart's early years, but it is likely that he grew up around the Neoclassical splendor of this pleasure-palace and its extensive Baroque gardens. It seems likely that his grandiose surroundings left a lasting impression on an artist who would later indulge in surfeits of luxury and ornament, not only in his painting, but also in his work as a designer and decorator. His father may also have encouraged his son to take up painting, to succeed where he had failed, but his father died in Italy in 1849 shortly before Hans reached his tenth birthday.
Early Training and Work
In 1850, Makart, aged just eleven years old, moved to Vienna to study painting under Johan Fischbach at the Academy of Fine Arts. It seems that he took issue with precise structure and order of the Academy, both in terms of pedagogy and in the type of artwork it revered, and he was dismissed from the institution after only a year. Although the given grounds for his dismissal were a lack of natural talent, it is hardly surprising that Makart's early penchant for intense color, movement, and sensuality - reminiscent of the style of Titian or Rubens - would clash with the austere, controlled classicism that still dominated academic art at the time. It was not until his move to Munich ten years later that his own, distinctive style began to develop. Seemingly impervious to criticism, Markart's decadent lifestyle also came to define him as a rebellious talent.
Following a two-year period of self-instruction, Makart enrolled in the Munich Academy where he was tutored by the realist painter Karl von Piloty. His first painting of note, Lavoisier in Prison (1861), was produced under Piloty's tutorage, and though considered somewhat tentative and conventional overall, attracted attention for its bold and unconventional use of color. During this early period during which he honed his highly decorative style, Makart also travelled to London, Paris and Rome. While in the Italian capital, the artist was invited to submit a piece for the opening of the Austria Artists' Society in Vienna in 1868. Makart sent over his colossal three-part work Modern Cupids, along with painstaking instructions on how it should be displayed. All three canvasses were bought by the Count Johann Palffy, who became a regular patron of the artist. Appearing to suit the tastes of the nobility rather well, Makart also attracted the attention of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, who bought his Romeo and Juliet for the Vienna Museum before summoning the artist himself to work and live in Vienna in 1869. In the same year, Makart married Amalie Franziska Roithmayr, though she died only four years into their marriage.
Although it is thought that Makart requested a set of lavish apartments from the Emperor (which would certainly have aligned with his reputation for self-confidence and taste for opulence) he was given a studio converted from a disused foundry. Not to be discouraged, Makart transfigured this industrial space into the plush, decadent heart of Viennese society. Known as the "Ring-Road Period" because of the fashionable boulevard created around the city, the Belle Époque in Vienna was a time of cultural and artistic celebration. During the early-to-mid 1870s, the bourgeois and nobility alike congregated in Makart's studio-turned-salon, with the artist serving as high-priest to an aestheticism of art and living. Having turned his hand to interior design, costume design, furniture design and soft-decoration, his studio overflowed with statues, flowers, fine fabrics, and music. His plush studio acted thus as the perfect artistic backdrop for his models - largely nude women - who were also welcomed into his high-society circle.
It is problematic to talk of Makart's "mature" and "late" periods given that he died at such an early age (forty-four). Nevertheless, with his reputation growing exponentially throughout the 1870s, Makart standing in his later life was such that the so-called Makartstil, or Makart-Style, came to define cultural life in Vienna and the period of "Ring-Road" Aestheticism. From hats to very particular shades of red, Makart's name lent any item or trend a superlative élan. It is true that elements of French Symbolism and Aestheticism are omnipresent in his style, but instead of darkness and morbidity, Makart's work focused much more intensely on vivid color, decoration, and unabashed sensuality. In this respect, he sits much closer to the Art Nouveau movement that would become popular towards the end of the century, and upon which he had a significant influence. One might also observe the influence of Orientalism on his work which most observers have attributed to Makart's travels throughout Europe and North Africa during the 1870s.
In 1878 Makart accepted a position at the very institution that had expelled him and condemned his talents when he became a professor at the Viennese Academy. Only two years later, he was appointed head of a specific school for history painting within the institution, a role he occupied until his death (in 1884). It was during this time that Makart crossed paths with a starstruck student named Gustav Klimt. It was Klimt in fact who did most to take Makart's legacy forward following his death. In addition to his professorship, Makart's works continued to provide him with wealth and recognition. Even criticisms seemed only to fuel his achievements. This was the case with his 1878 painting The Entry of Charles V into Antwerp which was condemned for its depiction of female nudity set in an early-modern scene. The painting was in fact banned in America which naturally increased the desire amongst the American public to see this work, and, by default, other such works by him.
In 1879 the Emperor commissioned Makart to organize and design a pageant for his silver wedding anniversary. The artist did not disappoint. Dressing citizens up in Renaissance outfits, and having a float of artists in Baroque costume, he himself rode near the front of the parade on a white horse. Makart seemed to conjure up a different age for the Viennese, creating a magnificent event so popular that it continued annually up until the 1960s. Makart's royal patronage did not stop there either. The Emperor once again called on the artist to design the decor of the Villa Hermes for his wife, asking him to recreate the scene of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The plan, however, was never carried out, and the artist died of syphilitic meningitis in 1884. The 1083 works of art that he owned were put up for auction after his death, and his magnificent studio was left to fall into disrepair.
The Legacy of Hans Makart
Though remembered by many as the "magician of colors" (including the failed artist Adolph Hitler who is said to have been an admirer), following his death Makart suffered a serious decline in reputation. With him died the specific pocket of culture and celebrity life which had revolved around him and his coterie for some twenty years. Despite this, his influence on design and decoration continued strongly. Several commemorative stamps and currency prints have been dedicated to him, and within his hometown of Salzburg can be found a square which bears his name. But most significant, perhaps, was his influence on Gustav Klimt and of the Vienna Secession. Whereas Makart began as an outcast, and only then joined the establishment in the form of the Academy, Klimt's artistic journey followed the inverse route: idolizing his professor's artistic principles and academic pedagogy, Klimt eventually developed his own, more abstract, language, but one that maintained a recognizable "Makartstil" in its focus on female sensuality and sumptuous decoration.
Unfortunately history has shown that Makart was in the habit of using sub-standard bitumen pigments that mean that many of his works have deteriorated: blues have turned to green for instance and the rich glow of his colour harmonies and the thickly applied paint have often deteriorated and/or cracked and crumbled over time. Nevertheless, important examples of his work survive in galleries in Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg and Stuttgart. In the Vienna Museum one can also find a series of fine decorative lunettes executed by Makart's hand.