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Franz Anton Maulbertsch

(1724 Langenargen – 1796 Vienna)

Image of Toleration. Etching. 47.4 x 49.5 cm. 1785. Nagler 5 II, Le Blanc 6 II.

Franz Anton Maulbertsch was without doubt one of the pre-eminent artistic figures in Austria in the second half of the 18th century. His expressive, often dramatic and compositionally innovative paintings, frescoes and etchings earned him great renown and paved the way for the international significance that Austrian Baroque came to acquire. His large allegorical composition with the enigmatic title Image of Toleration is saturated with the elaborate Baroque opulence that is so characteristic of his work.

The etching, published in 1785 by the Viennese art dealer, Franz Xaver Stöckl, is extremely rare. Were it not for the explanatory legend the artist has inserted in the lower margin it would be all but impossible for the present-day viewer to understand this idiosyncratic composition with its multitude of symbolical and allegorical figures. The complex content is presented in the form of a broad theatrical scene. Floating on high at the top right is Chronos, the god of time, who is pushing a heavy stage curtain to one side, while a putto to his left pulls on a rope with all his might, thereby raising the curtain and revealing the scenery. The action reaches its climax in the brightly illuminated upper part of the picture where the personification of Truth, girded only with a veil, is led by the winged genius of the Enlightenment to the enthroned Christian religion. The personification of Faith is flanked by Moses and the three representatives of the newer Christian denominations, while the naked winged genius of Toleration is sat on the steps beneath her in the middle of the picture playing his lyre and looking thoughtfully at the observer.

Several sub-themes depicting contradictions from earlier times enrich the exuberant scene. In the right foreground the female figure of Antiquity lies asleep on an ancient kline apparently completely oblivious to the turbulent goings-on around her, while in the left foreground an armoured warrior indicates to a peasant couple that they should heed the truth. A contrast is thus contrived between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. While Antiquity, anaesthetised with the pleasures of the senses, is furthest away from the true faith, the Christian Middle Ages prove receptive to the truth. “A. Maulbertsch inv. et fec. 1785” is inscribed in the bottom left-hand corner of the etching. Above it grows a thistle, the signum the artist chose for himself.

This symbolically overloaded composition must be seen and judged in the context of the time at which it was produced. Pioneering literary publications and social events heralded a new attitude of mind. Lessing’s ground-breaking play Nathan the Wise appeared in 1779 and the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his Patent of Toleration two years later in 1781. Seen in this light, Maulbertsch’s allegory of tolerance appears at first glance to be fully in keeping with the prevailing spirit of the times. The real leitmotif, however, is Truth, which is guided by Enlightenment to the one true Christian faith, whereas the spirit of tolerance is given the task of reconciling discrepancies and bringing about harmony. Maulbertsch thus deliberately adopted a stance which ran contrary to the predominant phi­losophical, profane and neoclassical views, remaining committed to the pathos and deep religious spirit of the Late Baroque. The overabundance of this allegory, the stylistic idiom of which appears almost disconcertingly backward-looking in view of the period to which it dates, seems very far removed from the new stylistic ideals of classicism.

A fine impression with thread margins around the framing line, with lower text margin. Minor foxing, an unobtrusive vertical crease on the right, otherwise in very good condition.
Literature: Franz Martin Haberditzl, Franz Anton Maulbertsch 1724–1796, published by Gerbert Frodl and Michael Krapf, Vienna 2006, pp. 320–322, fig. 306.

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