Serbian 19th century portraits form a big part of the permanent collection in Matica Srpska Gallery in Novi Sad. That’s why I decided to dedicate a completely separate post to this genre of painting. I am aware that looking at images of unknown people may not be to everyone’s liking. But as you will see, portraits in the museum are by some of the most prominent Serbian painters of the time. Masterfully executed, they tell us a lot about the people that they portray. We can learn about their social status and also about the way they used to dress, for example.
There are many portraits in the Gallery. I took some photos as in illustration for this post, perhaps too many. But, the same as with everything else that I write about, this post will be the only reference point to which I can come back and refresh my memory in the future. Otherwise, how likely is it that we can remember anything from our first visit to a new museum? I would say very little.
So, let’s start with what inspired the 19th century Serbian painters.
VIENNA AND WESTERN EUROPEAN INFLUENCE
As an independent art form, a portrait first appeared in Serbian painting in the 18th century. That was at the time when the middle class began to take the leading role in economic and cultural developments.
Serbian portrait painting relied on western European models, because they enabled better individualisation of personalities. Additionally, the art no longer served only religious topics, but it took its own path within the frames of historical painting.
The portrait is a genre, but it’s also a form with various aspects: status, memorial, ceremonial, idealised, allegorical and sacral.
When you look at the portrait, you can see the commissioner’s desires and the artist’s capabilities too.
Most importantly, portraits tell us about the social and cultural context at the time of their creation.
There are several portraits by the Austrian painter Joseph Hickel in the Gallery. Certainly, those 18th century portraits, among the others, served as an inspiration for Serbian artists.
The four portraits below depict some very famous people, members of the Habsburg dynasty and other royalty. I think that it’s fascinating that you can see portraits of these people in the museum in Novi Sad.
EARLY 19th CENTURY SERBIAN PORTRAITS
Influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment and Rationalism in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Serbian art abandoned Baroque pictorial poetics. It accepted the aesthetic ideal of the Vienna Academy of Arts. That’s characterised by different stylistic expressions, from late Baroque to Neo-Classical.
Nevertheless, the artists maintained contact with religious circles and received their orders. But, they also embraced a different culture and the taste of a newly formed middle class within the society. It lead to increased production of portraits.
Thus, portraits completed a picture of a new society. They served to socially legitimise the individual within their family and additionally in the wider social community.
Apart from priests and other church dignitaries, portraits also represented respectable members of the middle class: lawyers, professors, writers, wealthy traders, their wives and children with their status represented by clothes and jewellery.
BIEDERMEIER IN SERBIAN 19th CENTURY PORTRAITS
A generation of painters, influenced by Vienna as the main centre of art studies, who introduced Biedermeier and Nazarene artistic programmes from central Europe, appeared during the thirties in the 19th century on the Serbian artistic scene.
Biedermeier, a stylistic expression that deeply influenced the Serbian art at the time, was certainly the most suitable for wide circles of people.
With the middle class becoming the carrier of social changes, the family became the basic unit of the modern society and the main scene of private life. Family portraits confirmed and visualised the importance of the family, both the ones that showed individual family members and the group ones.
In addition, family portraits showed the social status of the family. They were private and also an important part of the family cult.
In the Serbian 19th century painting, group family portraits and children’s portraits are a unique genre.
The existence of children’s portraits and the need for exposing the image of a child in the middle class interior speaks of changes in social perceptions and of new values that accept and promote the rich bourgeois, primarily commercial and clerical families, that want to show off and also to perpetuate their descendants and successors.
Additionally, the picturesque children’s portraits show intense family relations brought upon the 19th century. The manifestation of intimacy between parents and children, brothers and sisters are all represented in this type of portraits.
MID-19th CENTURY PORTRAITS AND SELF-PORTRAITS
In the middle of the 19th century, the Serbian painting was characterised by the content and the form typical for the middle class art (Biedermeier).
Although a number of Serbian painters of the period produced paintings with a national and historical content, the majority of them continued with icon and portrait painting, in order to meet their clients’ needs.
Portrait, as a form of presentation, best responded to the life and ideas of the Serbian middle class society which was shaping the environment. Thus, representatives of certain social groups are portrayed: members of the royal family and renowned Serbian families, Serbian intelligentsia, writers, poets, lawyers, merchants and clergy.
Additionally, under the influence of romantic ideas, the need to explore own identity deepened among the artists and it could be best expressed in interpretation of their own character – in self-portraits.
The collection of Serbian 19th century portraits in Matica Srpska Gallary is certainly much bigger than what you can see in this post. Of course, there was no need to take photos of absolutely everything. So, to see the entire collection, the best that you can do is to visit this museum, when you have the opportunity.
For the time being, I hope that this post gives you a good idea of the collection and also the way the Serbian art developed throughout the 19th century.