“… painted in oil and syrup” - The Austrian academic painter, designer and decorator Hans Makart

28 May 1840, the Austrian academic painter, designer and decorator Hans Makart was born in Salzburg.

“… painted in oil and syrup” (Alfred Döblin)

An example of Hans Makart’s favourite motives, Cleopatra, in this case “Die Niljagd der Kleopatra” (Cleopatra hunting on the Nile), 1876.

It was the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, a total work of art made popular by Richard Wagner after the 1850s, that sprouted some curious, but quite picturesque shoots in Vienna and has characterised an era, the Ringstraßenepoche. With his decree “It is My will” from 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph had the city walls and moats of his capital torn down and a new boulevard laid out, the Ringstraße, with its amalgam of historistic styles, Jigsaw Gothic for major religious and public structures, Renaissance and Baroque for the palais, the Bourgeoisie’s and nobility’s urban villas with their interior furnishing being an explosion of stucco, plush, arrases, boiseries, multi-layered chandeliers and paintings, imperative for the “Gesamtkunstwerk”. And of course, they were, fitting to plush and chintz, executed in the prevalent Academic style’s sensuous salon sujets, thinly veiled under a historical or mythological pretence and the local master of this kind of imagination was the “magician of colours”, Hans Makart.

"Titian", as imagined by Hans Makart (1881 - 1884)

The idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” was pursued by Wagner’s friend Makart from decorating the palais and creating stage designs down to styling hats and collars and arranging the pageant for the silver wedding of the emperor and empress, the fabled “Sissy”, with several hundred costumes, Renaissance for the burghers á la Dürer and baroque for artists. His paintings were inspired by Titian and Rubens, but his paragons were charged by Makart full of pathos and indulging in histrionics with a rapture of colours. And with portraits and the imagery of legends and legendary history and a style that sometimes crossed the borders of academic art into realism and symbolism, Makart became the celebrated artistic darling of Viennese high society, almost to a point of being cultishly worshipped. The charm was past at the moment of his early death from paralytic dementia caused by late-stage syphilis at the age of 44 in 1884 and Vienna felt that the “Ringstraßenepoche” had come to an end. Especially Makart’s oeuvre was at the very least smiled at if not ridiculed over the following decades, but artists like Klimt and many other representatives of the upcoming Art Nouveau had already picked up elements from his works and spun his threads forth into the 20th century. 

"Peter Paul Rubens" à la Hans Makart (1881 - 1884)