Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Wagner and the ‘Makart Style’


The visual artist most commonly linked with the name of Richard Wagner from the 1870s to the early twentieth century was the now relatively little-known Viennese painter Hans Makart (1844–84). Makart's Viennese atelier – no less than his sumptuous history paintings, ‘bacchanals’, society portraits and multi-media design-projects (notably a lavish 1879 historical pageant celebrating the Hapsburg monarchy) – defined an influential visual and stylistic idiom for the early fin-de-siècle. The style is recognisable in the salon at villa Wahnfried, in Paul Joukowsky's set designs for the first Parsifal, and arguably, in aspects of Wagner's music itself. Like most artists of the era, Makart occasionally depicted Wagnerian motifs, but his affinity with the composer was recognised as a matter of style and technique. Two breakthrough works from around 1868 in triptych form, Moderne Amoretten (Modern Cupids) and Der Pest in Florenz (The Plague in Florence), suggest thematic and conceptual parallels with Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, respectively. Makart's Renaissance history paintings and the 1879 Vienna Festzug stage national history as a collective aesthetic experience in the manner of Die Meistersinger. A ubiquitous theme in comparisons of artist and composer is the role of colour (visual, harmonic and timbral), raised to a quasi-autonomous force that dominates composition and ‘idea’. Makart's resistance to conventions of visual narrative, as read by contemporary critics, recalls Wagner's resistance to conventional melodic periodicity.

This article investigates the cultural and technical sources of Makart's appeal in the later nineteenth century and traces the comparison of Makart's and Wagner's styles as a critical topos. The disappearance of Makart and his ‘style’ from modern critical consciousness, I argue, mirrors a cultural Amnesia regarding features central to Wagner's irresistible fascination for his contemporaries.

Hide All

1 Katalog des künstlerischen Nachlasses und der Kunst- und Antiquitäten-Sammlung von Hans Makart, ‘published by the guardian of Makart's children, A. Streit’ (Vienna, 1885).

2 Cosima Wagner's Diaries, vol. 1, ed. Dieter Mack and Martin Gregor-Dellin, trans. Geoffrey Skelton, 2 vols. (New York, 1977), vol. 1, 828 (entry of 22 February 1875): ‘Calls with R.; to Makart's astonishing studio, a sublime lumber-room [Rumpelkammer].’ According to one source, Cosima thought about holding the wedding reception for one of her daughters here. See Pirchan Emil, Hans Makart (Vienna, 1954), 39. Two painted renditions of Makart's studio from the later years of his career by Rudolf Alt (1885) and Eduard Charlemont (1885) can be found here:

3 Klaus Gallwitz, ‘Nach uns die Sintflut’, introductory essay to exhibition catalogue Makart: Triumph einer schönen Epoche, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden Baden, ed. Klaus Gallwitz (Baden Baden, Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt, 1972), 5.

4 Stiassny Robert, Hans Makart und seine bleibende Bedeutung (Leipzig, 1886), 1214.

5 von Vincenti Carl, ‘Hans Makart’, in Wiener Kunst-Renaissance: Studien und Charakteristiken (Vienna, 1876), 222–4. ‘Sun-burners’ (Sonnenbrenner) were multiple-jet overhead gas lamps amplified by a series of mirrors, providing strong and well-ventilated illumination for large halls or rooms. Eva Mongi-Vollmer discusses Makart's studio as a paradigm of the role of the studio as discursive space closely identified with the personality and idiom of the artist in the later nineteenth century in Das Atelier des Malers: Die Diskurse eines Raumes in der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 2004), 51–87.

6 Mann Thomas, ‘The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner’, in Thomas Mann Pro and Contra Wagner, trans. Blunden Allan (Chicago and London, 1985), 135. ‘[A]nd we know for a fact’, Mann adds, not quite correctly, ‘that he planned to commission Makart to paint some sets for him’. Makart was approached (most likely by Cosima) about designing costumes for the first Parsifal, though there is evidence that Makart was considered as a candidate for designing the original Ring cycle at Bayreuth (see note 19 below).

7 Cf. Dahlhaus Carl, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. Robinson J. Bradford (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989) 263.

8 Mann, ‘Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner’, 92.

9 Ibid., 135.

10 Ibid., 137.

11 Mann, ‘Reflections of a Non-Political Man’, in Thomas Mann Pro and Contra Wagner, 59.

12 The correlation between the influential look of Makart's studio and trends in domestic interior design more generally can be gauged from Muthesius Stefan's amply illustrated study, The Poetic Home: Designing the 19th-Century Domestic Interior (London, 2009). The larger trajectory of taste to which Makart signally contributed, as Muthesius describes it, moves from an ideal of bourgeois ‘restraint and simplicity’ in the Biedermeier or Regency decades early in the century to sumptuous, quasi-aristocratic display with profuse citations of antique and exotic elements, following the general rise in middle-class affluence. See, for example, the introduction, ‘Modernity, Anti-Modernity, Comfort and Décor Since 1800’, 15–25 (in particular 23).

13 Eugène Müntz, ‘Exposition internationale de Munich’, Gazette des beaux-arts 11:2 (July–December 1869), 321. ‘M. Mackart [sic] est le Richard Wagner (d'autres disent l'Offenbach) de la peinture allemande’. The alternative comparison with Offenbach, ironic as it seems, is echoed in the 1871 essay by Wilhelm Lübke comparing Wagner and Makart (see note 14 below). Müntz offers no further gloss on the comparison with Wagner, aside from referring to the controversial critical responses elicited by the young artist. His comments on the Moderne Amoretten (referred to as ‘Sketch for the decoration of a room’, one of two versions exhibited) anticipate a variety of what would be standard themes in Makart's reception. The artist lacks proper skill in drawing ‘large figures’, presenting body parts (‘torsos, arms, and legs’) in a confusing jumble; the disposition of the multifarious images across the three panels testifies to ‘a remarkable understanding of the laws of decoration’; his striking application of colours and textures elicits undisguised enthusiasm, even though the end result is judged ‘unhealthy and immoral’. ‘The tone of the gold background from which the figures are detached, the brown tones of the reeds and flowers’ (the signature dried flower effect) ‘and the alternately red and white tones of the flesh all create a marvelous harmony, one of astounding richness and a truly musical charm; the composition exudes the poetry of autumn and dead leaves’ (321).

14 Lübke Wilhelm, ‘Hans Makart und Richard Wagner’, in Das neue Reich 1:2 (1871), 17. Both artists, he remarks, are able attract the attention of the public even while ‘events of world-historical importance’ are unfolding (alluding to the recent Franco-Prussian War and the founding of the German Reich).

15 Ibid., 17.

16 Ibid., 20.

17 Ibid., 21. ‘What is this “sovereign idealism of color” but a virtual terrorism of the brush?’ he retorts.

18 Ibid., 21–2.

19 In her diary entry of 21 April 1878, Cosima Wagner noted: ‘At lunch friend [Hans] Richter … brings me the happy news that Makart wants to do the sketches for the costumes and bring them here in time for the 22nd’ (i.e., 22 May, Richard's birthday). Cosima Wagner's Diaries, vol. 2, 64. Neither the costumes nor the visit materialised, and nothing further is said about the commission. We know that Cosima also approached the painter Arnold Böcklin and the architect Camillo Sitte regarding possible set designs for Parsifal, suggesting a relatively unusual interest for the time in utilising the talents of innovative artists rather than professional scene painters. See Carnegy Patrick, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (New Haven and London, 2006), 78–9. A letter from Cosima Wagner to Franz von Lenbach (26 December 1873) suggests that the Wagners had initially thought of approaching Makart about designs for the original Bayreuth Ring, as well. See and Petzet Michael, Die Richard Wagner-Bühne König Ludwigs II (Munich, 1970), 229.

20 Cosima Wagner's Diaries, vol. 1, 269 (entry of 26 May 1871). Cosima's prejudice was quickly renounced upon her first actual encounter with his work. The pair of large-format decorative allegories entitled Abundantia (mentioned above) where exhibited in Bayreuth in the summer of 1873 in the course of an extensive European tour. ‘Makart's Abundantia … truly delights me; pleasure that a German is now so original in his conception and so bold in his execution, no imitation of any known model to be detected’ (ibid., 653; entry of 3 July 1873). Cosima was aware that the pair of paintings had been designed for the dining room of a wealthy Hungarian magnate (‘which accounts for its Serbian, Turkish, modern Greek coloring’); perhaps the fact that she and Richard were on the verge of moving into their new villa ‘Wahnfried’ was not without influence on her reaction. ‘The picture interests me so much that I return home and persuade R. to leave his corrections of the 9th volume [of his Gesammelte Schriften] to come and view it. He shares my feelings.’

21 An essay by Katharina Lovecky in the catalogue of a recent exhibit of Makart's work at the Belvedere in Vienna (9 June–9 October 2011) considers the critical trope of comparing Makart and Wagner largely from the point of view of the late Nibelungen pictures, as well as Wagnerian iconography Makart would have known from productions in Munich, Vienna and the first Bayreuth festival. She also discusses connections between Makart, Wagner and the architect Gottfried Semper with regard to late oil-and-ink sketches for monumental architectural façades in the Belvedere collection. While Makart's late Nibelung cycle places the bodies of its subjects in a largely abstract mythical setting, Lovecky concludes that the more typical opulence of the artist's style did not match Wagner's ideals of theatrical design (whether for buildings or stage sets), perhaps a reason why the plans for a collaboration on the Bayreuth festivals never materialised. Lovecky, Hans Makart: The Wagner of Painting?’ in Makart: Painter of the Senses, ed. Husslein-Arco Agnes and Klee Alexander (Munich, 2011), 181–95 and 197–209 (plates 74–84).

22 Renata Kassal-Mikula in Hans Makart, Malerfürst, catalogue of exhibition in the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, 14 October 2000–4 March 2001 (Vienna, 2000), 96.

23 Robert Stiassny, Hans Makart und seine bleibende Bedeutung, 6.

24 ‘Was bei Makart die absolute Farbe, das ist bei Wagner das souveräne Orchester.’ Lübke, ‘Hans Makart und Richard Wagner’, 21. The phrase about Wagner's ‘sovereign orchestra’ alludes to Lübke's dismissive citation of a Berlin critic on Makart's ‘sovereign idealism of color’ (ibid., 18, 20).

25 Ibid., 21–2. Stiassny later wrote that ‘Makart's images are all flesh but no bones, just as his figures themselves are all color without drawing’. Stiassny, Hans Makart und seine bleibende Bedeutung, 7.

26 ‘Hans Makart’ (anonymous obituary), Neue freie Presse, Saturday 4 October 1884, 5. The writer explicitly deploys the language of sexual domination, even aggression in referring to the subordination of drawing to colour as Vergewaltigung. The theme is developed with a similar emphasis in the following installment, where he parses the ambiguous category of ‘colourist’. Makart's ‘colourism’ was a matter not of subtle nuances, but of virtuosity and extravagance: ‘he loved color for its own sake, and it had to be bright, full-toned, and loud’ (‘hell, volltönend, geräuschvoll musste sie sein’). Neue freie Presse, Sunday 5 October 1884, 1.

27 ‘In [Makart's colours] there was a constant motion of shimmering hues, flickering flames, an unceasing quality of crackling, boiling, and glowing.’ Ludwig Hevesi, ‘Hans Makart und die Sezession’ (14 June 1900), reprinted in Acht Jahre Secession (Vienna, 1906) and quoted here from Renata Kassal-Mikula, ed., Hans Makart, Malerfürst, 16–17. In evoking the ‘magic fire’ of Makart's colors, Hevesi continues with metaphors of quasi-musical fluidity and dynamism: ‘Durch sein ganzes All strömte ein einziger, einheitlicher Strom von Farbigkeit, als sichtbare Leidenschaft, als optische Lustempfindung. Und was sich in diesen Strom tauchte, nahm alles eine Farbe an, eine überaus vielfarbige Farbe, die Makartfarbe. In ihr war ein unablässiges Kommen und Gehen von Flimmer, ein Flackern von Flamme, ein Knistern und Sieden und Glühen ohne Ende. Diese brodelnde, gärende Welt von Sichtbarkeit sichtete er nach seinem besonderen Trieb, als ein eigen waltender Farbeninstinkt.’

28 Kassal-Mikula, Hans Makart, Malerfürst, 17.

29 Hanslick Eduard, Musikalische Stationen (Die moderne Oper, vol. 2) (Berlin, 1885), 249. Robert Hamerling (originally Rupert Hammerling), Austrian poet and writer, 1830–89. His works include the poem in five cantos (ottava rima), Venus im Exil (1858) and a collection of fifty-five poems in the ‘Nibelungen’ stanza, Ein Schwanenlied der Romantik (1860). His best-known work was a poem in six cantos, Ahasver in Rom (‘Ahasverus in Rome’), depicting, among other things, the ‘wandering Jew’ of medieval legend as a witness to Nero's Rome. The poem may have served as a literary referent for Makart's elusive 1868 triptych Die Pest in Florenz (‘The Plague in Florence’), also called Die sieben Todsünde (‘The Seven Deadly Sins’); see below, ‘Modern Bacchanals’.

30 On these technological dimensions of the Bayreuth theatre as fact and as interpretive figure, see Kreuzer Gundula, ‘Wagner-Dampf: Steam in Der Ring des Nibelungen and Operatic Production’, The Opera Quarterly 27:2–3 (Spring–Summer 2011), 179218.

31 Vienna: Alfred Hölder (Beck'sche Universitäts-Buchhandlung).

32 A pro-Wagnerian riposte to Lübke's 1871 essay printed in the new, Wagner-friendly Musikalisches Wochenblatt posed essentially the same question, rehearsing familiar methodological quibbles about the comparison of works or artists in different mediums, though without much effort to investigate the potential of such a comparison or what, in this case, might have prompted it. Slevogt Carl, ‘Gegen W. Lübke's “Hans Makart und Richard Wagner”’, Musikalisches Wochenblatt 2:39 (22 September 1871), 612–14. The author, a Thuringian lawyer, economist and politician, was apparently no relation to the artist Max Slevogt (b. 1868).

33 Schaffer Nikolaus, ‘Das grosse Liebesspiel: Ein Versuch über Hans Makart, unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Kritiker’, in Hans Makart (1840–1884), ed. Marx Erich and Laub Peter (Salzburg, 2007), 65.

34 Lübke, ‘Hans Makart und Richard Wagner’, 19. It is telling with regard to Makart's controversial early reception that the unnamed Berlin critic quoted by Lübke was defending precisely these ‘unreal’ qualities as something novel and interesting in the work.

35 Ibid., 18.

36 Landsteiner Karl, Hans Makart und Robert Hamerling: Zwei Repräsentanten moderner Kunst (Vienna, 1873), 1011. The first canto of Hamerling's 1865 Ahasver in Rom, sometimes suggested as a topical source for the Plague in Florence (or ‘Seven Deadly Sins’) series, includes a suggestive description of a dance performed by a dark, brooding Mignon-like girl, ‘half maenad, half still child’. Hamerling, Ahasver in Rom, 11th edn, (Hamburg, 1875), 25.

37 As Nikolaus Schaffer puts it: ‘In the Moderne Amoretten Makart gives exemplary expression to a characteristic attitude hovering between hunger for life and pessimism, though opposed to resignation; with Makart, the imagery does not pursue any concrete program, but only a philosophy of life transformed into painting’. Schaffer, ‘Versuch über Makart’, 95.

38 ‘Solch zügellose Entfesselung der Begierden, wie sie hier in den Massen-Evolutionen grinsender und ächzender Liebespaare sich producirt, dürfte selbst für den liberalsten Geschmack zu weit gehen. Sie ist geradezu unästhetisch.’ Eduard Hanslick, ‘Hofoperntheater: “Tannhäuser” von Richard Wagner’, Neue freie Presse, 24 November 1875, 1.

39 ‘Es wäre an den menschlichen Courmachern, zu welchen wir die vier im Vordergrunde cancanirenden Faune mit Bocksfüssen nur ungern zählen, wahrlich genug gewesen.’ Ibid.

40 On the musical-semiotic erotics of the Venusberg, see also Dreyfus Laurence, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 8492.

41 Lübke, ‘Hans Makart und Richard Wagner’, 17.

42 See, for example, Stiassny, Hans Makart und seine bleibende Bedeutung, 7: ‘so bleibt die Einsicht nicht lange mehr aus, dass alle seine Bilder nur Fleisch und keine Knochen besitzen, wie seine Gestalten nur Farbe und keine Zeichnung’. Art historian Richard Muther (perhaps directly paraphrasing Stiassny) made the same comment in a chapter on the ‘Revolution of the German Colourists’ in his History of Modern Painting: ‘One hears the rustle of silk and satin, and the crackle of costly robes of brocade, one sees velvet door-hangings droop in heavy folds, but the figures which have their being in the midst are only bodies and not souls, flesh and no bones, colour and no drawing.’ Muther, The History of Modern Painting, trans. Ernest Dowson, George Arthur Greene and Arthur Cecil Hillier (London, 1895), 492. (The original German edition was published in 3 volumes in 1893.)

43 ‘The representational content’, Pirchan adds, ‘pales in significance against the furioso fanfare of colours, in which the forms seem to dissolve.’ Pirchan Emil, Hans Makart: Leben, Werk und Zeit (Vienna and Leipzig, 1942), 27. Pirchan's monograph was re-printed with minor changes in 1954 (Vienna). Brigitte Heinzl notes how this characteristic ‘freedom from figural or narrative content’ in Makart anticipates a similar tendency in the Secession painters, together with his interest in integrating his painting into architectural spaces in unconventional ways. Heinzl, ed., Hans Makart: Zeichnungen, Entwürfe (exhibition catalogue, Salzburg Museum Carolino Augusteum, 8 June–23 September 1984; Museum Jahresschrift vols. 29–30), 26.

44 Friedrich Pecht (1814–1903) as quoted in Landsteiner, Hans Makart und Robert Hamerling, 12. The preface to Landsteiner's essay (3–6) reflects on the phenomenon of aesthetic ‘modernity’ in general as perceived around 1870.

45 Landsteiner, Hans Makart and Robert Hamerling, 12.

46 Wagner was responding to the critic W.H. Riehl in the short essay ‘Über die Benennung “Musikdrama”’, Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen vol. 9 (Leipzig and Berlin, 1887), 307. More precisely, Wagner admits that instead of ordinary operatic spectacle, ‘almost nothing but music’ happens in Act 2 of Tristan, and such ‘as seems to be so entirely music that people of the constitution of Herr Riehl lose their hearing’.

47 See Cosima Wagner's Diaries, vol. 1, 484 (entry of 9 May 1872): ‘R. and I with Countess Dönhoff to Makart; saw the large picture of Caterina Cornaro; great talent, but everything influenced by pictures, no living impressions! But an outstanding talent.’

48 Quoted in Pirchan, Hans Makart, 28.

49 Makart's obituary in the Neue freie Presse, which altogether stresses the contribution of the artist to Vienna's cultural identity, highlighted this aspect of the 1879 pageant: ‘This pageant is Makart's most beautiful picture, and Vienna, only Vienna saw this picture. What remains to us of that picture? A bright memory, a few engravings and color prints, nothing more.’ Neue freie Presse Sunday 5 October 1884, 2.

50 Stiassny, Hans Makart und seine bleibende Bedeutung, 25.

51 Cosima Wagner's Diaries, vol. 1, 653 (3 July 1873).

52 Cf. Newman Ernest, Life of Richard Wagner, vol. 4 (New York, 1946), Gregor-Dellin Martin, Richard Wagner: Sein Leben, Sein Werk, Sein Jahhundert (Munich, 1980) and von Westernhagen Curt, Wagner: A Biography, trans. Whittall Mary (Cambridge, 1978). Westernhagen includes the details about (the Hellmesbergers performance) of Beethoven's 131 (taken in part from Max Milenkovich-Morold's 1937 biography of Cosima).

53 Richard and Cosima also happened to attend in Vienna the play that featured Charlotte Wolter as the profligate Roman empress Messalina (Arria und Messalina, by the scholar, journalist, novelist and playwright Adolf von Wilbrandt, 1837–1911). Cosima characteristically dismisses the play as ‘a dismal piece of hack work, performed by actors without any talent’ (without mentioning Wolter by name); ‘returned home feeling nauseated’. Cosima Wagner's Diaries, vol. 1, 877 (26 November 1875).

54 Arnold Böcklin, Rudolf Seitz and the architect Camillo Sitte also declined Cosima's invitations to participate in designing the 1882 Parsifal. See Carnegy Patrick, Richard Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (New Haven and London, 2006), 109–10. Carnegy's comments on Makart reflect a common misperception of the artist as a conventional academic painter: ‘In many ways, Makart, the monumental Viennese painter, would have been a “natural choice” and could undoubtedly have provided the sort of thing that most of the bourgeois theatre public would have considered fitting. But it was as well that he did not waste his time, for Wagner had already turned his back on anything other than an un-monumental realization of his insubstantial vision’, 110.

55 Laurence Dreyfus, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse.

56 David Hockney's 1987 Los Angeles Tristan und Isolde (revived in 1997 and 2008) may point in this direction at least as regards ‘colour’ and fantasy; although opting for a spare, modern (uncluttered) ‘texture’, it offered vibrant storybook illustration colours reminiscent of Brioschi's 1883 Viennese designs. Video and computer-graphic-generated projections, as in Bill Viola's Tristan ‘project’, the 2009 Valencia Ring cycle (in which a superabundance of video images vies for attention with the Fura dels Baus performance troupe), or the somewhat ill-starred Robert Lepage Ring cycle for the Metropolitan opera all suggest some impulse to amplify the visual stimulus of Wagner production in new ways.

57 The rug, like the rest of the plush domestic ambience of the Aarenhold household, had an immediate model in the opulent Arcisstrasse home of Mann's wealthy Munich in-laws, the family of Alfred Pringsheim. As Mann well knew, the look owed much to the dominance of the ‘Makart style’ as a décor paradigm at the time the Pringsheims acquired their villa in 1889. (The art featured in the Pringsheim home, however, was that of the more up-to-date Hans Thoma.) See Hanno-Walter Kruft, ‘Alfred Pringsheim, Hans Thoma, Thomas Mann: Eine Münchener Konstellation’, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse: Abhandlungen, vol. 107 (Munich, 1993). (My thanks to Laurence Dreyfus for this reference.)

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Cambridge Opera Journal
  • ISSN: 0954-5867
  • EISSN: 1474-0621
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-opera-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 27 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 202 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.