Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman
Three Gnomes, 1874
Pen and ink with wash over pencil on thin cardboard
6 3/4 x 9 5/8 in, 17.15 x 24.45 cm (sheet)
Collector’s Marks: Unidentified collector’s mark; Collection Fuhrer, Essen (not in Lugt)
Provenance: Collection Fuhrer, Essen; acquired from Joseph Fach, Frankfurt am Main, 1986
Inscriptions: (recto) lower right, signature: "C. Gehrts 74"
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2007.15.38
The German painter and professor Carl Gehrts began his artistic training in Hamburg before moving to Weimar in 1871, where he continued his studies by taking lessons from the leading German realist Karl Gussow (1843–1907) and the history painter Albert Baur (1835–1906). When Baur left for Düsseldorf in 1876, Gehrts followed, having also obtained a professorship at the Academy there.1
In addition to paintings, like the now-destroyed cycle for the upper story of the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, Gehrts became a highly regarded ornamental designer and book illustrator. The present drawing is an early work executed while Gehrts was still honing his skills in Weimar and might well have been one of Gehrts’ first forays into book illustration, though the exact project for which it was made remains unknown.2 Given its subject matter, it almost assuredly was produced in relation to one of the many illustrated fairy tale compilations, or Märchenbücher, that found widespread popularity in the period.3 Some ten years later, Gehrts would execute his most enduring illustrations for Johann von Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox).4
Given the strongly linear forms, refined hatching, and broad passages of wash in Gehrts’ drawing, it probably was intended as preparatory for a wood engraving. Wood engraving had been developed in the late eighteenth century and rapidly became the favored method of book illustration because it used the end grain as opposed to the softer side grain, as in woodcut, thus allowing for more detailed compositions and increased durability for large print runs. The wood blocks could also be easily inserted into typeset passages of text.
Apparently lit by a flash of lightning, Gehrt’s gnomes have taken shelter under a blasted tree trunk that recalls the etchings of Jacob van Ruisdael. The delicate leaves and ferns at right contrast with the clouds and stroke of lightning in the distance at left, and provide an embracing, protective natural world for the gnomes, whose expressions suggest stoic resignation and humorously exaggerated fear at the sound of thunder.
1. Sabine Schroyen, "Gehrts, Carl," in Saur, Allegemeines Künstler-Lexikon, Vol. 51, 44–45.
2. Walther Scheidig, Die weimarer Malerschule, 1860–1900, Leipzig, 1991, 237.
3. Friedrich Schaarschmidt, Zur Geschichte der düsseldorfer Kunst insbesondere im XIX. Jahrhundert, Düsseldorf, 1902, 333–334.
4. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, Volume III, Illustrated, Philadelphia, 1885.