Ernst Welker, painter and traveller
Exploring a curious collection of portraits by a landscape artist
Exploring a curious collection of portraits by a landscape artist
19th century painter Ernst Welker was mostly known as a landscape painter, except for a curious collection of watercolours where he portrayed the salon guests of the Duchess of Courland as humorous mythical creatures. Read this guest blog from Museum Burg Posterstein to discover these extraordinary artworks.
While still studying at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the painter Ernst Welker (1784–1857) already received awards for his landscape paintings. He lived from his art for his whole life, exhibiting and selling his works at considerable prices.
With artist friends such as Johann Christoph Erhard, Johann Adam Klein and the brothers Friedrich Philipp Reinhold and Heinrich Reinhold from Gera, he went on art expeditions to Salzburg and Berchtesgaden or in the neighbourhood of Vienna.
Ernst Welker was a volunteer in the Lützow Free Corps during the Napoleonic Wars fighting at the poet Theodor Körner's side and, later, made a drawing of Körner's grave. Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan employed him for several years as a drawing teacher and companion for her foster daughters - including Emilie von Binzer who later became a writer.
In the company of the Duchess of Sagan, he stayed on their Silesian estates Żagań and Ratibořice and spent the summer at Löbichau Castle in the salon of the Duchess of Courland, Wilhelmine's mother.
There he produced a series of watercolours, portraying the guests present as mythical creatures, half human, half animal or object. These watercolour pictures are now part of the collection of the Museum Burg Posterstein and can also be seen in Europeana.
From 1821, Ernst Welker stayed in Italy for several years. One can assume that he moved in the circle of the German-Roman artists' colony and knew well-known artists of his time personally. In the entourage of Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan, he travelled to Naples, of which his watercolours bear witness.
And despite all this, Ernst Welker has so far remained largely unnoticed by the art community and scholars.
Until the publication of Italy, Destination of Desire: The Painter Ernst Welker on Travels and in the Salon of the Duchess of Courland (in German) by the Museum Posterstein Castle, Ernst Welker had never been the main focus of a book, though many art catalogues mention him in passing. Contemporary publications have already made mistakes – for example, his place of birth (Gotha), year of birth (1784), family origin (son of the Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg archivist Philipp Friedrich Welker) and travel destinations of Welker (he was probably never in the near East).
Tracing his life is detective work, which only began with the book published in 2022 - and is far from over.
In 2014, with the support of the Bürgerstiftung Altenburger Land and the Free State of Thuringia, the Museum Posterstein Castle was able to purchase an extraordinary collection of drawings. These portray Löbichauer salon guests as mythical creatures, and were owned by Emilie von Binzer for a long time. The salon of the Duchess of Courland in Löbichau, a few kilometres away from Posterstein, is one of the most important research topics of the Museum Posterstein Castle of Regional History.
The 'Salon guests as mythical creatures' part of the collection consists of 47 watercolours with well-known Löbichau guests and two sketches, all of which were kept in a green half-leather case. They have already been digitised and are freely accessible and usable in Europeana and on Wikimedia Commons.
Among those portrayed are the Duchess Anna Dorothea of Courland herself (represented as a loyal poodle) and Welker's employer Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan (as a proud steed), as well as the Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg Duke August (as a vain peacock), the writer Elisa von der Recke (as an inkwell), the poet Christoph August Tiedge (as an armchair), the archaeologist Carl August Böttiger (as a statue) and the lawyer Paul Johann Anselm von Feuerbach (as a nail).
Each watercolour is provided with an accompanying rhyme. Emilie von Binzer called these notes under the portraits 'primer verses'. In the 18th century, a primer was understood to be an illustrated learning book with individual motifs that matched the respective letter. Such a primer could have formed the template for Welker's portraits, because there is a letter in upper and lower case in the upper left corner of the picture. In fact, all 26 letters occur, some even more than once. The attempt to cover the entire alphabet also explains verses that sound rather peculiar.
The fact that an art teacher was allowed to take the liberty of such pictures, which were most likely shown in Löbichau, underscores the freedom and openness that prevailed in the salon of the Duchess of Courland. The poet Jean Paul also praised her salon in Löbichau for this very freedom of speech and openness. Incidentally, Ernst Welker drew himself as an oyster with the saying: 'Die Auster ist von guter Art / das groeste an ihr ist der Bart.' ('The oyster is of a good kind, the biggest thing about it is the beard').
The second part of the Welker Collection in Posterstein includes 13 landscape paintings by the painter that the museum owns or that are linked to the museum through permanent loans. Eight watercolours and one oil painting show landscapes. With the exception of one sheet, all works are signed with Welker; E. Welker; E.W.; withered fec.; E. Welker fec.; and Ernst Welker fec.
The small collection is supplemented by works by Johann Christoph Erhard, Johann Adam Klein, Johann Christian Reinhart and Carl Trost.
The collection largely comes from the collector Uwe Buchheim. Impressed by the research and exhibitions on the salon of the Duchess of Courland, through which he began to study the painter Ernst Welker. Not only did he work to ensure that the portrait collection of the salon guests could be acquired by the museum in 2014, he has been collecting himself ever since and has made the acquired works available to the museum.
The special exhibition and the book of the same name, Longing Destination Italy - The Painter Ernst Welker Traveling and in the Salon of the Duchess of Courland show all of these Welker works for the first time. The book traces the life of the painter based on the museum's collections and research.
While working on it, we came across new information and other works by Welker in various international collections. We are particularly pleased that for the first time we have been able to process a part of the Biron Collection of the Thuringian University and State Library in Jena that had not yet been indexed. These include salon scenes, portraits and sketches for the Posterstein collection of salon guest portraits.
Important sources were also opened up by looking at the digital archive of the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen. Furthermore we received illustrations for the book from the Albertina Vienna, the Gera Art Collection, the Art Collection 'Hamburger Kunsthalle', the Dresden Art Collections, the Lindenau Museum in Altenburg, the German Literature Archive in Marbach, the Nuremberg Municipal Museums, the Austrian National Library, the Thuringian University and State Library, the Saxon State and University Library, the Thorvaldsens Museum Copenhagen, the British Museum and the Weimar Classic Foundation.
In the book, we compare Welker's works with illustrations of works by his fellow painters. Since Welker - apart from his drawings - left hardly any written sources himself, there are definitely gaps in the biography.
We would therefore like to call for the collection and exchange of research data on the painter Ernst Welker. We are very grateful for any information. On our website, salon-europa.eu, we would like to provide an overview of various stations in Welker's life and of the holdings of the collection worldwide and maintain it long term.
After the exhibition, we plan to add all new information to the Wikipedia page on Ernst Welker.
The exhibition Longing for Italy – the painter Ernst Welker on his travels and in the salon of the Duchess of Courland is on display at Museum Burg Posterstein from July 17 to November 13 2022.