Picture Perfect

Views from the 19th Century

Picture Perfect

The nineteenth century is the age of pictures. Visual art reached larger audiences than ever before. Artists—women and men—powerfully shaped the culture of their time, the spectrum of themes considered worthy of depiction was substantially enlarged, and "picture perfect" became the highest form of praise. The motifs that were invented then still define our ideas of romantic feeling, of sadness and beauty. Over the course of the nineteenth century, an enormously diverse universe of narrative visual art emerged whose capacity for formal innovation remains thrilling today.

"Picture Perfect" presents a reinterpretation of the Lenbachhaus’s collection of nineteenth-century art. The new display covers an unusually wide range of artistic styles and subjects in an effort to offer fresh perspectives on this rich visual culture. Complemented by photographs and film and audio samples, it charts the contemporary context in which themes and imageries originated and spotlights some of the ways in which the long nineteenth century continues to inform contemporary culture today.

In the nineteenth century, the people who visited exhibitions and collected art, who read books, journals, or travel guides expected to encounter vivid portrayals and entertaining stories, and so many artists tended to affirm existing realities rather than subject them to critical scrutiny, but we can also glimpse moments of irony that suggest an awareness that their productions were often based on models and façades. Still, the rapid growth of the imagery in public circulation meant that the world of individual experience was drastically enlarged.

In the hands of artists, natural scenes became the picture-postcard vistas we still like to take in. Traditional dresses and rural traditions were revived or, in some instances, invented out of whole cloth in the nineteenth century; some proved so compelling that people around the world now flock to Oktoberfests to perform as "Bavarians". In the German mind, the forest is central to the relationship between humans and nature, a visual and emotional space.

Painters who moved to the countryside not only interpreted the rural world, they also experimented with modern ways of life, and their art conveyed a sense of vitality unmarred by the constraints of urban decorum. As portraitists of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, they helped define the public image of these social strata; they explored the relations between the sexes and class differences. The entire "grand theater" of the modern world waited to be cast into visual representations: phenomena as diverse as life in the historic past, the problems of the natural sciences, or the allure of spiritism.

Curated by Susanne Böller