The Serbian 18th and 19th century painting is, 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 Serbian paintings from the 18th and the 19th century. That was when Serbia gained independence from the Ottoman rule and 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 created for a 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.
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. He strived to convey the effect of vision, of elegy or nostalgia, which he accomplished 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, that he had seen 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”.
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 directly 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, where 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.
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.
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, to get an insight in the Serbian art and culture. Without any doubt, this museum is really the best place for that.