The Serbian 18th and 19th century painting is certainly, in addition to the Serbian medieval art, the most important part of collection in the National Museum in Belgrade. In my opinion, it is also the most interesting to see. I dedicated my previous post to Serbian frescoes and icons. However, in this article I will present the 18th and the 19th century Serbian paintings. That was when Serbia gained independence from the Ottoman rule. It was a period also when European influences on the art and culture became more prominent in everyday life.
The collection contains more than 1500 works by Serbian authors and it represents development of the Serbian art. At that time paintings were created for the the Serbian Orthodox Church, for influential and rich individuals and also for the Serbs that lived within the Austrian Empire. But, in the 19th century they were also created for the newly formed middle-class in the young Principality of Serbia.
First artworks came to the National Museum shortly after its founding, as gifts and legacies. The donors were the authors themselves, citizens and members of royal families – both Karađorđević and Obrenović. In 1864, Serbian Metropolitan Mihailo presented 35 paintings by the artist Dimitrije Avramović, as a gift.
A decade later, the first acknowledged Serbian female painter Katarina Ivanović, bequeathed her most important works to the National Museum. Before the Second World War, the collection was additionally enlarged thanks to the assistance of the Department of Art at the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.
The Serbian painting of that era can be divided in three periods: Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Academic Realism and Historical painting.
NEOCLASSICAL PERIOD – SERBIAN PAINTING AT THE END OF THE 18th AND THE BEGINNING OF THE 19th CENTURY
Under the influence of the Enlightenment and the Rationalism at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, the Serbian art started to abandon baroque pictorial poetics and aesthetic ideals of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, characterised by eclecticism of different stylistic expressions: from the late baroque to the neo-classical.
In addition to the still dominant religious painting, portraits were gaining an increasing importance. Portraits complete a picture of a newly created society. They also embed a permanent memory of individuals within the family or the wider community. Stylistic features of paintings of that era are a balanced composition, precise modelling and rigorous academic drawing.
Arsenije Arsa Teodorović
A versatile and educated Serbian artist of that time, Arsenije Arsa Teodorović, opened the door to new interpretations of art at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. He accepted the ideas from Johan Winckelmann – the classicist teaching about the existence of the “eternally beautiful”, defined according to the masterpieces of Ancient Greece, Hellenistic and Roman art.
He spent decades building his artistic opus on these foundations, which in addition to iconostases, religious themes and large compositions, also included a number of portraits.
The monumental portrait of Bishop of Pakrac, Kirilo Živković, is an exceptional achievement in all portrait painting in Serbia in that period.
In the gallery of his work, the portrait of General Peter Duka occupies a prominent place, however the most renowned portrait is of the great Serbian educator Dositej Obradović.
Arsa Teodorović originally painted it in Vienna in 1791 and then he produced a faithful copy in 1818.
With the gallery of portraits that he painted over the course of his prolific career, Pavel Đurković was a significant representative of Classicism. He left a valuable cross section of the Serbian bourgeois society, from the very top echelons, headed by the royal family that he painted while staying in Serbia, to the broadest section of the merchant class and senior and lower ranking clergy and artisans.
Behind his measured artistic expression based on a correct understanding of the poetics of contemporary Classicism, he revealed the character and nature of people that he portrayed.
An educated artist, Dimitrije Avramović was rare among the Serbs in the mid-19th century. Besides painting, his other preoccupations included translating and exploring medieval Serbian heritage. He studied foreign languages and also showed interest in literature, philosophy and history.
He was the first critic to write art reviews and he drew caricatures. Just before he completed his studies at the Vienna Academy, he painted his two capital works, which would determine his future and his creative path.
The death of Lukijan Mušicki, Bishop of Gornji Karlovac and the greatest classicist poet, inspired him to paint an allegorical composition which is a superb example of Nazarene painting in Serbian art – “The Apotheosis of Lukijan Mušicki”.
The complex iconography, excellent drawing, balanced composition, the carefully modelled figures of the poet, the muse and the genius of death, point to the artist’s maturity which certainly exceeded his youthful years.
In only a decade and a half of work, Konstantin Danil earned a reputation and prestige that few of his fellow painters could boast. He was the central figure of Biedermeier Classicism.
In 1829, a priest from Pančevo, Konstantin Arsenović (an amateur painter himself), entrusted young and then still unknown painter Danil with the task of making the icons and iconostasis in the Church of Dormition in Pančevo.
But, it was in portraiture that Danil’s true artistic qualities came to expression.
In the course of a decade, from his arrival to Serbia until his departure to study in Vienna, Uroš Knežević produced a considerable number of portraits of historical figures in the Principality of Serbia. Those portraits are a historical and artistic material from the times of the defenders of the constitution of Serbia.
The gallery of portraits by Uroš Knežević is significant in many ways because during the period when it was created, it was essentially the first large body of secular paintings in Serbia.
Still, his contribution to promoting artistic culture in Serbia in that period manifested itself more in establishing a royal, representative type of portraiture that would play a crucial role in Serbian painting after 1848.
For Serbian painters throughout the 19th century, Vienna represented the cultural and artistic metropolis. For most, the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts was the ultimate destination on their educational path.
In their painting studies they did not lag behind their peers because, in addition to learning the German and Hungarian languages, they mastered all disciplines prescribed in the courses of drawing and painting that they attended during the studies.
In the mid-19th century, the general attitude among Serbian students at the Vienna Academy was towards Nazarene influences in the domain of religious painting.
This was also the case with one of the better students at the Academy, Serbian painter Pavle Simić. At 21 years of age, he received the Gundl Award for historical painting.
The principles of Biedermeier Classicism dominated his abundant portrait works, he maintained them right until his later years.
PERIOD OF ROMANTICISM – SERBIAN PAINTING AT THE SECOND HALF OF THE 19th CENTURY
The generally accepted period of Romanticism in the Serbian art and culture is between years 1848 and 1878. Serbian artists readily welcomed transition from tranquil and polished portraits and genre scenes and interiors, to dramatic, patriotic and historical compositions.
Although the bourgeois society cultivated the art that was suited to its own taste and which was confined to peaceful and idyllic life wrapped in a cloak of “artistic rationalism”, the romantic and national rebellion was reserved only for those who had the strength and the talent to introduce a large measure of subjectivity in art.
For the penetration of Romanticist concepts, the education of Serbian painters in Vienna and Munich, as well as trips to Italy were crucial. Additionally, social and political conditions contributed to the Romantic expression in the Serbian art, that accomplished its highest achievements in the late 1860s and the beginning of 1870s.
Thus, stylistically and thematically, Romanticism brought notable innovations: greater freedom of strokes and composition, warm colours complemented by the play of light and shadow. Most Serbian artists of that period reflected the national-historical content in their paintings. However, clients’ needs kept the iconography and the portrait painting popular.
Among the Serbian artists, Đura Jakšić is certainly one of the most prominent Romantic painters. He was thoroughly imbued with Romanticism in all he did, whether painting a portrait, historical, allegorical or religious theme. Đura Jakšić strived to convey the effect of vision, of elegy or nostalgia. He accomplished it like never before in his masterpiece of his long lost love “The Girl in Blue”.
His paintings at the end of the 1860s and the beginning of the 1870s are fully infused with romanticist painting qualities. In them, Đura Jakšić made no secret of his affinity for the Rembrandtesque semi-darkness and the Baroque chiaroscuro effects. He had seen them in the works of European masters in museums in Vienna and Munich. He particularly appreciated the powerful effects of nocturnal lighting and used it effectively when depicting historical events, such as in the “Torchlight Procession through the Stambol Gate” and the “Observation Post”.
A compelling artist, Nikola Aleksić, was a chronicler of the bourgeoisie among the Serbs and Romanians of Banat. He made a valuable contribution to the development of Serbian art both in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
In painting, he fully adhered to the rules of late classicist and Biedermeier painting solutions. He gave precedence to drawing rather than colouring.
He is remembered as the author of a large number of portraits. Among them are the highly expressive portraits of children at different stages of childhood. They are unique in the mid-19th century Serbian painting.
THE LAST THREE DECADES OF THE 19TH CENTURY – TRANSITION FROM ROMANTICISM TO REALISM
The last three decades of the 19th century in Serbian art are marked by works of painters who accepted and promoted a realistic trend in painting. After the romanticist restlessness and idealism, Realism in art brought calmness and studiousness, deliberation and a rational spirit.
The first group of realistic painters greeted the new artistic principles that had arrived from Munich. The Academy of Visual Arts in Munich was a renowned institution in Europe in the 19th century.
Among the Serbian students of the Munich Academy who fully adopted Realism and remained true to its principles to the end were Miloš Tenković, Djordje Milanović and Milan Popović.
Tenković went to study in Munich in 1870, only one year after Gustave Courbet’s famous exhibition which signalled a turning point in 19th century European painting. Frequent trips and stays in various studios and workshops, coupled with financial problems, obliged him to prolong his studies, that lasted 10 years.
On returning to his native city, he organised a solo exhibition of drawings and paintings. It was a rarity in that setting, at that time. On show at the exhibition, also visited and lauded by Queen Natalija Obrenović, almost all motifs and themes were realistic. There were no religious themes, because unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Tenković never worked on religious themes.
Among the works were those that had already by then laid a solid foundation for Serbian Realism – from the tactile still life “Broken Majolica” to the “Florist”, which was simple from the viewpoint of composition but very powerful in terms of genre, to the uncommon “Landscape with Cows”, a work in which he would affirm the type of flawlessly executed realistic landscape.
Among the first students to arrive from Serbia to Munich was Djordje Milanović. Like most artists of his generation, he also adopted models of his Munich teachers, both in terms of thematic repertoire and their colouristic solutions.
The fullest contribution to the development of Realism in Serbian painting lay in his still lives, which contained not only the essential determinants of Realism, but also discreet hints of symbolism.
When speaking about Realism in Serbian art at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Đorđe Krstić is a significant phenomenon in many ways.
His talent and his unique artistic language were remarked during the years of his studies at the Munich Academy and were followed at the exhibitions in which he took part.
The reason why Đorđe Krstić surpasses other painters of his generation is the influence that he had as a painter and a teacher on the generation of younger Serbian artists, those who completely turned away from Academism towards Pleinairism and Impressionsim.
ACADEMIC REALISM & HISTORICAL PAINTING – SERBIAN PAINTING AT THE END OF THE 19th AND THE BEGINNING OF THE 20th CENTURY
According to the general ideas of Historicism, the dominant characteristic of the 19th century European culture, events and figures from the national history had the top role in the process of constituting the national identity. They were representative of the golden age of the nation. In the Serbian culture of the 19th century, it corresponded with the rule of the Nemanjić dynasty.
The idealisation of the glorious past, regardless of whether it was based on real facts or myth, was the main tool in the constitution and the homogenisation of the nation. Thus, this idealised past directly served to glorify the present.
Certainly, the emphasis was on rebuilding the former Serbian glory. These ideas are reflected in the visual art of that era – historical compositions and patriotic scenes that illustrated past events. They praised the nation through idealisation of events and personalities. They also became means of communication, with an aim to awaken national and patriotic feelings.
However, towards the end of the the 19th century, some Serbian painters turned to Munich and its Academy of Fine Arts. In comparison to Vienna, it was more avant-garde and progressive.
However, a larger number remained faithful to the Vienna Academy. In Vienna, the educational system was still based on the constitutional education, traditional practices and technical skills. Portraits of Paja Jovanović and Uroš Predić represent the highest level of Academicsm in the Serbian painting of the late 19th century.
After his brilliant success while studying at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and his work on the decoration of the Vienna Parliament building, Uroš Predić responded to the first call from his native Orlovat. He returned to his own country, to create his impressive artistic opus. Apart from genres and historical compositions, it also included a unique ecclesiastical art and a large body of portraiture.
In terms of style, his work is distinguished for his perfect drawing, skilful composition and richness of colour. He was highly cultured, conscientious and with persevering personality. He observed the fate of the individual and also of his entire nation with care and anxiety.
Thus, he achieved a perfect harmony of flawless Realism, while dealing with deeply moving themes, in his works such as the moralistic “The Merry Brothers” of “The Orphan”. He opened a new chapter in art whose influence, from a social viewpoint, would be especially felt at the very turn of the century.
In response to the events of the war between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire from 1875-1878, in a highly realistic manner, he approaches a theme, not of a heroic battle for liberation, but of tragedy of an oppressed nation, forced to flee. “The Fugitives from Herzegovina” is considered to be a masterpiece of historical painting, but also a unique turning point in his career.
Thanks to the world renowned scientist and benefactor, Mihajlo Pupin, who bought this painting at the World Exhibition in Paris, this capital work became part of his legacy to the National Museum.
Pavle Paja Jovanović
A door to success and fame opened for Pavle Paja Jovanović during his studies. It continued to grow in the following years, turning him into a leader of the national art. He is remembered in history for his popular and sought-after genre paintings, depicting life of Balkan and Oriental people. His large format historical composition of the medieval and the modern Serbian state were praised and awarded. Additionally, his enormous output of portraits brought him success and acknowledgement at international exhibitions. He also became one of the youngest members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art.
On the occasion of his election to the Serbian Royal Academy, Pavle Paja Jovanović organised his first solo exhibition in Belgrade in 1893. Thus, he showed to the public why of all Serbian painters his work was most in demand among the gallery-owners, collectors and art connoisseurs.
He painted themes from the life of ordinary people in the Balkans, such as “Decorating of the Bride”, “The Cock Fight” and “The Traitor”, in accordance to wishes and tastes of his numerous clients. At the same time, they were an opportunity for him to demonstrate his intensity, as well as his flawless drawing and painting skills.
SERBIAN ART AND CULTURE IN THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
Surely, this collection is magnificent. When I go back to Belgrade, I will certainly visit the museum, to see these masterpieces again.
Also, I don’t really need to say that anyone visiting Belgrade should visit the National Museum. Undoubtedly, this museum is really the best place where you can get an insight in the Serbian art and culture.