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johann gottlieb prestel
(1739 Grönenbach – 1808 Frankfurt a. M.)

Chute D’eau. Two colour aquatint etchings after Jacob van Ruysdael. Each measuring c. 65.5 x 51.5 cm. Circa 1785–90. Not recorded by Nagler or Heller-Andresen.

The painter and etcher Johann Gottlieb Prestel spent years as an apprentice in Venice, Rome and Florence and stayed for longish periods in Augsburg, Nuremberg and Zurich – where he painted a portrait of Goethe in 1775 – before finally settling down in Frankfurt on Main in 1783. Although Prestel was considered to be an eccentric loner, the restless artist succeeded in finding a permanent post in Frankfurt. He abandoned paint­ing in order to devote himself entirely to printmaking, a field in which he achieved such mastery that his contemporaries spoke of the “Prestel manner”.

It was in his application of the aquatint technique recently invented by Jean Baptiste Le Prince that Prestel soon attained an unsurpassed level of technical brilliance, of which these two rare, large-format prints after paintings by Ruysdael provide im­pressive evidence. Prestel often executed reproductive engravings after works which were to be found in the private galleries of Frankfurt’s nobility, such as the Praunsche Kabinett or the famous Städel Collection. The present prints after Ruysdael, on the other hand, came from the well-known collection of Count von Brabeck and are not recorded by Nagler or Heller-Andresen. In their technical refinement the etchings not only do full justice to the unique strengths of Ruysdael’s landscape art, but are also tangible proof of the growing esteem in which the Dutch master was held in 18th century Europe. Prestel’s interpretation seems to sublimate Ruysdael by further intensifying the emotional content in keeping with the then prevalent predilection for the sentimental. The white foam on the water, the grim cliffs and the dark foliage of the oaks and conifers are rendered in a way that is wonderfully atmospheric and dramatically vivid. The human figures appear somewhat lost against this formidable natural backdrop.

The two etchings also reflect the enthusiasm that Goethe had felt when viewing Ruysdael’s “heroic” landscapes and which received its theoretical formulation in the essay “Ruysdael as Poet” in 1816. In this much-noted article Goethe presented Ruysdael as a “thinking artist”, praising the profound symbolic character of his art. Referring to the famous painting The Jewish Cemetery near Ouderkerk in the Dresden Gallery, he mentioned Ruysdael as an example of how “the empathizing, clear-thinking artist in his poetic manifestation attains a perfect symbolism and, through the soundness of his external and internal senses, at once delights, instructs, refreshes and invigorates us” (Goethe, Berliner Ausgabe 20, Kunsttheoretische Schriften und Übersetzungen. Aufsätze zur bildenden Kunst (1812–1832), Berlin 1974, p. 35). Prestel’s masterly, atmospheric prints seem to be the artistic embodiment of Goethe’s words.

Superb, richly varied and sharp impressions with the original engraved mounting. Slight traces of handling, otherwise in very good condition.