Traces of the Hand

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Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman

Social Commentary

Ferdinand Staeger
German, 1880–1976
Up the Garden Path, c. 1914
Watercolor over pencil on wove paper
9 x 12 5/16 in, 22.86 x 31.33 cm (sheet)
Provenance: Acquired from Joseph Fach, Frankfurt am Main, 1981
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2006.11.57

In Ferdinand Staeger’s watercolor Up the Garden Path, an eerily inscrutable gardener greets a genteel couple strolling beside a brook. This beguiling character bows graciously and directs them into a formal garden, lush with bloom. His demeanor is that of a guide more than a servant. Most disconcerting are his tiny forehead horns, a diabolical attribute that immediately evokes a sense of foreboding. The claw-like shadow of his right hand and its prominent fingernails amplify his demonic identity. The gardener’s apron seems agitated by a wind nowhere else evident in the scene, enhancing the sense that he is an infernal apparition. The artist used gouache to silver-tint the hair of the aging men, contrasting the gentleman escort’s flowing locks with the gardener’s tightly crimped coif.

The prominent urns with enormous flowers and the high spouting fountain indicate that this garden is elaborately cultivated, to the point of feeling unnatural. That this is a garden of love is suggested not only by the roses but also by the sub rosa implication of secret intentions. Billowing pink clouds lie behind all three of the figures, suggesting late afternoon and set the tone for a pastel-hued, sunny bower of bliss, while the lady’s bonnet casts a shadow on her demure face. Her lace-sleeved dress and the man’s flowing formal coat seem to be contemporary with the drawing, but suggest a formalized ritual or a staged play. Staeger, in fact, illustrated scenes from Mozart’s librettos, and this scene strongly suggests an episode from an opera or play.

Ferdinand Staeger’s early training in brocade design for carpet making is evident in his floral diversity and his meticulous linearity.1 This drawing is on parchment, a rare support for the early twentieth century, suggesting that this is a finished work though it was reproduced as an engraving.2 Staeger became known for his etched illustrations after he moved from Prague to Munich in 1908 and joined the Jugendstil movement. His style changed radically during the 1930s and 40s when he painted German political propaganda. In his postwar works, he adopted sinister motifs reminiscent of the German symbolists.

Ferdinand Staeger has been described as a "mystical realist," which may explain his lifelong affinity for otherworldly scenes in everyday settings.3 Though Up the Garden Path is an early work, its ominous details hint at disturbing realities underlying an ostensibly sunny and orderly world, rendered under the veil of meticulous realism.

Lindsay Jones
Mary Haviland

 

1. Helmut Scheunchen, "Staeger, Ferdinand: Maler und Graphiker"; Bruno Binder, "The Graphic Art of Ferdinand Staeger," The Print Collector's Quarterly, 26, February, 1939, 193.

2. Chappell, Form, Function, and Finesse, 183. A related drawing depicting a similar couple was published in R. C. Muschler, Ferdinand Staeger, Leipzig, 1925, fig. 31.

3. Herbert von Wessely, ed. Ferdinand Staeger: Mystischer Realismus. Munich, 1975, 11.

 

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