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Salomon Gessner

(1730–1788, Zurich)

Ideal Landscape with Ancient Tomb. Pen and black and brown ink, gray wash over a preliminary sketch in graphite. 21.4 x 35 cm. Signed and dated: "S. Gessner f. 1768". Watermark: Strasbourg Lily.

Salomon Gessner, the son of the respected publisher Hans Konrad Gessner, was born in Zurich in 1730. He spent the years 1749–50 in Berlin, where he served an apprenticeship in the renowned publishing and bookselling house of Haude & Spener, while at the same time undertaking his first attempts as a draughtsman and landscape painter. After his return to Zurich Gessner was initially successful in the literary field before devoting himself entirely to artistic creation in the early 1760s. Gessner’s background enabled him to consort with some of the leading lights of his time. He was a friend of the writers Ewald von Kleist and Christoph Martin Wieland and met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when the latter visited Zurich in 1775. The painter Anton Graff stayed at Gessner’s house in 1765–66 and made portraits of Salomon and his wife, while the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also a guest at the artist’s Zurich home in 1766.

Gessner was an unusually versatile and erudite personality and self-taught as an artist. Looking at the present landscape drawing, which belongs to his early work, one cannot but be surprised at the speed with which Gessner attained artistic maturity. In its carefully thought out and detailed composition the drawing shows how intensively Gessner had, in the 1760s, studied the works of the 17th century Dutch Italianates, and how much their style influenced his own work. With intricate and very accurate penwork Gessner has rendered the textures of the terrain, the vegetation and the leaves of the trees in the foreground in an airy and diverse manner, while the differentiated wash technique sensitively captures the play of light and evokes delicate chiaroscuro effects. At one or two places lively touches have been added in pen and brown ink. Via a narrow, downward-leading forest path enlivened by two, only partially visible staffage figures, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to a distant wooded and mountainous landscape, which is convincingly depicted in terms of space and atmosphere by dint of fluid brushwork. The whole exudes a gentle and idyllic mood, while an ancient tomb located on a rise slightly to the right of the centre of the picture functions as a subtle reminder of the finiteness of life on earth. In his poetic observation of nature Gessner shows himself to be firmly in the tradition of such great 17th-century Dutch predecessors as Jan Both and Adam Pynacker.

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