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Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder

(1759 Berlin – 1835 Dessau)

The Bathers. Etching. 55.5 x 45.3 cm. Martens 217 IV (of VI).

This monumental, extremely concise composition shows Kolbe at the pinnacle of his art and embodies the very essence, as it were, of his artistic aspirations. The work is not dated but, like others issued by the Berlin publisher, J. J. Freidhoff, it was probably an early work produced around 1800. An indication of this is provided by the effectively arranged cabbage leaves in the bottom right of the picture which thematically anticipate Kolbe’s famous Kräuterblätter.

The composition is dominated by a majestic oak tree, the symbol of steadfastness and loyalty in German Romanticism and also of the German nation-state during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleonic France. This impressive work of art makes it clear why Kolbe was given the nickname of ‘oak Kolbe’ by his contemporaries, for the German tree par excellence was a recurrent theme in his printed oeuvre, distinguished as it is by a high degree of artistic authenticity and genuine closeness to nature. The effectively arranged staffage figures in our print lend added colour to the scene. While the solitary rider on the left and the herd of cows bathed in mild sunlight on the right of the oak tree are conventional compositional ingredients, the two naked bathers in the foreground add an element of psychological tension. Their poses appear strangely rigid, as if expressing an internal unrest in the heart of this peaceful, pastoral world or serving as the embodiment of the existential restless­ness of human nature. A superb, contrasting impression with even margins. Before the address of J. J. Freidhoff. Minor ageing, otherwise in excellent condition.

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