The Collection

Nikolaus Michael Spengler - A pair of reverse-painted glass paintings
"The Dancing Lesson" and "The Declaration of Love"

Nikolaus Michael Spengler (Konstanz 1700 - Darmstadt 1776)

A pair of reverse-painted glass paintings "The Dancing Lesson" and "The Declaration of Love"

The Dancing Lesson
Darmstadt, ca. 1760
Transparent and opaque colours in verre églomisé technique, partially tooled and underlaid with gold and silver leaf
Gilded stucco or gesso frame
41.5 x 33.3 cm

The Declaration of Love
Darmstadt, ca. 1760
Transparent and opaque colours in verre églomisé technique, partially tooled and underlaid with gold and silver leaf
Gilded stucco or gesso frame
41.5 x 33.3 cm
As we have no evidence of the Darmstadt court painter Nikolaus Michael Spengler undertaking any foreign travel, he may be assumed to have used engravings of the paintings of Pietro Longhi (1701–1785) to execute his atmospheric depictions of the refined lifestyle of far-off Venice within the borders of Hessen. In so doing, he was sharing the practice of many of his fellow northern European artists, who took advantage of the widely disseminated reproductive engravings to keep abreast of current artistic trends in Italy and, in particular, to draw inspiration from Venetian painting, which played a leading role in Italian art in the eighteenth century.
The subject of The Dancing Lesson was one that Spengler had already treated in an earlier series. While the present painting is, ultimately, based on the same painting by Longhi, Spengler did not use the engraving by Charles-Joseph Flipart (1721–1797; p. 116) but that of Hayd, which does not present Longhi’s painting in mirror image but as it is seen on the canvas. By contrast with what was the case in the other Dancing Lesson presented in this ­catalogue, in this instance, Spengler did not adhere exactly to the composition of the graphic source: His violin-player does not hold his instrument with his right hand, as does the violinist in the print, but in his left hand, as does Longhi’s. Similarly, Spengler did not place the mirror in the middle of the wall, as Hayd did, but followed Longhi in placing it further left toward the edge of the picture. Furthermore, he also retained the scope of the original painting, as Flipart did in his engraving, unlike Hayd, who narrowed the borders to create a close-up image of the subject.

Spengler departed from his other version of The Dancing Lesson in choosing a different palette of colours for the garments and interior décor. The dancing pupil is now wearing a dress in a pale yellow with myriad white highlights. These give the dress a light and airy “de-materialized” quality that contrasts strongly with the prominent bright-red stays inside her fur-trimmed collar, effectively catching the eye and matching the red frock coat of her dancing master. The governess on the left is, likewise, no longer dressed in a light-coloured but in a vivid petrol blue dress that stands out well beside the soft and fluffy light-grey fur on her sleeves and collar. In addition, a grey textile wall hanging with a black floral pattern creates a more pleasing effect than the severe wood panelling of the earlier version. The only element in the colour scheme that remained unchanged was the green of the settee and of the curtain in front of the door in the background, though even this colour was adjusted considerably through a higher proportion of blue.
The pair to The Dancing Lesson in this series is devoted to a subject from the field of gallantry much loved in the eighteenth century, The Declaration of Love. The original for this scene was a painting attributed to Pietro Longhi that has only been preserved in the form of a copy (see Pignatti 1969, p. 125 and fig. 469) and preparatory drawings in the Museo Correr in Venice (see Pignatti 1969, figs. 470 and 471). However, it was also reproduced in two engravings. Once again, the two engravings are by Flipart and Hayd, the former’s once again being a mirror image of the original.
Flipart’s engraving is accompanied by a quatrain indicating that while the scene at first appears merely decorative and witty in character, it also has a certain moral content: “Vaga Donzella a cui fra gli agi e l’oro / Le belle doti sue dono Natura / L’ozio sfuggendo in genial lavoro / Ogni folle amator sprezza e non cura.” This might be translated as follows: “The beautiful young lady living amidst riches and gold was blessed by Nature with her finest gifts; fleeing idleness through pleasant work, she shuns every foolish admirer and pays him no attention.”

The frock-coated cavalier who has just entered the room has doffed his three-cornered hat and is paying his respects to the young lady spinning at her distaff. She acknowledges his presence but does not stop working. The eighteenth century was an age of symbols and hidden allusions that painters such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze in France, continuing the tradition of the Dutch genre painters of the previous century, artfully contrived to incorporate into their works. Since time immemorial, spinning has been regarded as a particularly womanly activity, associated with such traits as industriousness and also an upright moral character. The fact that the young lady in Spengler’s picture is not kept from her work despite the cavalier’s advances is an indication of her integrity and virtue: She is determined not to be lured away from the straight and narrow. It is certainly not by chance that she is depicted in the company of a small girl and an elderly woman, both who are reading and thus, clearly possess a certain level of education. In a manner of speaking, these two figures symbolise the span of human life, in the middle of which stands the lady who is being courted. In his paintings, Spengler thus, not only charmed the court of Hessen-Darmstadt with evocations of Venice’s elegant lifestyle and charming interiors, but also made his own contribution to the upholding of moral teaching.
Exhibitions: Röbbig Munich: Selected works. Early german porcelain & Eighteenth-Century Art, Furniture, and Objets d'Art, Munich 2011, p. 114 ff., Cat.-no. 60. Literature: Emmerling, Ernst. Die Geschichte der Darmstädter Malerei. Die Hofmaler. Vol. I. 1936, pp. 14–15, 34–35; Keiser, Herbert Wolfgang. Die deutsche Hinterglasmalerei. Munich, 1937, p. 56, no. 35 and pl. 35;Ritz, Gislind. Hinterglasmalerei—Geschichte. Erscheinung. Technik. Munich, 1972, p. 73, figs. 13 and 14; Pettenati, Silvana. I vetri dorati graffiti e i vetri dipinti. Turin, 1978, p. 94, cat. no. 172 and fig. 233; Steiner, Wolfgang. Hinterglas und Kupferstich. 100 bisher unveröffentlichte Hinter­glasgemälde und ihre Vorlagen aus drei Jahrhunderten (1550–1850). Munich, 2004, pp. 54–55, 104–09.

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