Original motifs and a great narrative richness became his trademarks and brought him success. Even the Grand Duke of Baden employed him as court painter. Kirner’s scenes take place in the Black Forest, in Italy, Karlsruhe and Bavaria – the stations of his life. Many of his paintings were reproduced for the art market as print graphics, making him internationally famous. Countless preparatory studies of people, animals and objects served as the basis for his detailed artworks, painted with delicate brushstrokes.
Johann Baptist Kirner initially followed in the craft tradition of his family and was apprenticed to a carriage painter in Freiburg and a decorative painter in Villingen. His brother, the artist Lukas Kirner, supported his studies in history painting at the art school in Augsburg, while a grand ducal stipend enabled him to attend the academy in Munich from 1824 to 1829. In the 1830s, Kirner received a travel stipend and went to Naples and Rome, where he shared a studio with Franz Xaver Winterhalter. In 1839 he was appointed court painter of Baden. Kirner’s genre paintings frequently include humorous and caricature-like details.
The Court Painter
Kirner’s appointment as court painter to the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1839 by Leopold I secured him a financial livelihood for the rest of his life and increased his artistic reputation. Despite this appointment, the painter did not stay very long in Karlsruhe. Soon after presenting his work A hunting party – his only representational painting in this genre – to the Grand Duke, he moved to Munich, at that time the art capital of southern Germany. Every year he made an application for leave to the court of Baden, which was always granted. Grateful for the lifelong support he received, Kirner bequeathed his artistic legacy to the Grand Ducal Cabinet of Arts; its inventory is now held by the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.
In the Black Forest
Kirner’s Black Forest homeland is a theme that runs through his artistic work like a thread: from his first exhibited painting at the Munich Academy to the last painting of his parents. The lively parlour is the central location where life takes place; where people work, celebrate or decide their future. Decorated with the typical furniture of the period and filled with personal objects, the paintings are valuable ethnological testaments. They demonstrate Kirner’s obsessive attention to detail and his way of intensively exploring the themes of his paintings. His naturalistic parlour and traditional costume studies were created as preparatory works for the paintings and document the artist’s work process from the initial idea to the completed artwork.
Revolutionaries and Scoundrels
Kirner reflected the warlike and turbulent revolutionary years throughout Europe in his works. As court painter in the service of the ruler of Baden, he was unable to express direct criticism, but particularly the Summary shooting of a Black Forest man shows the artist’s sympathy for the political events. The realistic way he sets the scene creates sympathy
for the revolutionary who is about to be executed by the Prussian troops. With the painting A Swiss guardsmen tells he achieved his international breakthrough in 1831.
His “scoundrels” are derived from literary models or are rooted in the customs of Upper Bavaria. Kirner stages the original motifs as humorous-precarious snapshots. We remain in the dark – literally – about the outcome of the event.
Longing for Italy
A study trip to Italy was a fixed element in the education of European artists. Kirner also set off for southern climes in 1832. Financed by a scholarship from the Grand Duchy of Baden, he spent several years in Rome and also visited Naples and the surrounding region. The painter was fascinated by the southern countryside and Italian traditional costumes. He found the motifs for his sketchbooks in the region around Rome. The southern light brightened his range of colours; the radiantly blue sky is a constant feature of his paintings. He shared a studio in Rome with his Black Forest artist friend Franz Xaver Winterhalter for two years. Kirner felt so at home in the German artists’ circle of the Ponte Molle Society, that he found it hard to return to his homeland.
In his humourist sketches, Kirner gives intimate insights into life with his artist friends. The cheeky sketches were created during convivial get-togethers in a trusted environment and were probably only intended to be seen by his private circle of friends. Anecdotes from the artists’ joint excursions, Kirner’s farewell in Rome and arrival in Munich in 1839 or minor disputes between the friends were captured in caricatures. Whether as rapidly sketched snapshots on a ripped out piece of paper or detailed portraits – the sketches document the high esteem in which Kirner held his friends, who accompanied him throughout his life. By comparison, contemporary photographs illustrate the caricaturing distortion of the persons on the sketches.
Loss and Reproduction
Numerous graphic reproductions of 17 of Kirner’s paintings bear witness to the popularity of his motifs. Distributed as annual gifts of the German art associations, in newspapers and also in collected works, they made his paintings familiar to a wider public. They also serve as an important visual testament for works that are lost and for the numerous versions of a pictorial topic. The reproductions are prepared using various graphic techniques and copy their painting templates down to the tiniest detail in smaller format. With their multilingual descriptions in German, English and French, they were clearly produced for an international market.
Johann Baptist Kirner. Erzähltes Leben. Begleitbuch zu den Ausstellungen des Augustinermuseums. Hrsg. von Adila Garbanzo León, Felix Reuße und Tilmann von Stockhausen. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag 2021.