Johann Baptist Kirner

The Fortune-Teller, 1846

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Poverty and lack of prospects in the 19th century caused many denizens of the Black Forest to emigrate to America. Kirner relates the tale of a fortune-teller who uses playing cards to divine the destiny of a young man who wants to emigrate to America with his mother and sister.
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Johann Baptist Kirner came from a family of craftsmen in Furtwangen and first worked as a carriage painter. With the help of a stipend from the court of Baden, however, he was able to study art at the academy in Munich. Kirner spent time with Franz Xaver Winterhalter in Rome, where the two artists became close friends. Kirner is considered one of the most important southern German genre painters of the 19th century. In this painting, Kirner tells the story of a fortune-teller who reads a young man’s future in the cards. The painter shows the moment at which she reveals something surprising to him: the young man scratches his head, agitated and confused. According to tradition, this young man—like so many others from the Black Forest during this era—wanted to emigrate to America with his mother and his sister. As we see from their black mourning clothes, both the mother and the sister are widowed, and the young man must now assume responsibility for them as the only man in the family. Their bags are already packed; the mother and sister with the latter’s small child pay close attention to the prophecy. The fortune-teller, however, predicts a grim future for the young man in America and tells him he will only find true happiness at home. As the left half of the picture reveals, the fortune-teller is self-interested: a young woman, probably her daughter, eavesdrops at the door, hoping to gain the young man’s attention. In the niche behind the eavesdropper are religious objects such as a rosary and a “Fatschenkind,” a doll-like representation of the Christ Child. In this genre scene, Kirner tells a story that also serves to document the wave of emigration from the Black Forest. Poverty and hopelessness induced many young people, in particular, to turn their backs on their homeland and emigrate to the New World. TILMANN VON STOCKHAUSEN (Transl. MELISSA THORSON)

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