Spitzweg, "The Poor Poet", 1837 © Private collection, Photo: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg/Monika Runge

Carl Spitzweg

1808–1885

The Poor Poet | 1838
Oil on canvas
37,9 × 45 cm

The Poor Poet is undoubtedly Spitzweg’s most famous subject. This 1838 oil painting – which is represented next to two studies in this exhibition – is an early work by the artist who only four years previously had dared to take the leap from academically trained pharmacist to self-employed artist. Though Spitzweg’s rendering is today considered the epitome of a romantic artist, his hardly idealized depiction failed to convince the critics during the work’s first presentation at the Munich Kunstverein in 1839.

Spitzweg’s poor poet is lying on several mattresses in the corner of a sparsely furnished attic room. The room’s interior suggests poverty, and an open umbrella is meant to shield the poet from the water entering through a leaking roof. He is protecting himself against the cold by wrapping himself up in sheets and burning his own writings. Rather than an august artistic genius, Spitzweg opted to present the figure of a bohemian: antibourgeois, destitute, but inspired.

The work is characterized by two contrasting aspects: on the one hand it shows an artist, whose occupation the public generally associated with idleness, living a carefree life independent of social norms and conventions, an almost defiant attic room existence, while on the other hand it reveals something oppressive, conveying a sense of poverty and existential fears.

Amusing though the motif might at first glance appear, it is also a socio-critical comment on the precarious situation of artists. As is so often the case with his works, it is precisely this ambivalence that constitutes the appeal of Spitzweg’s depiction. This ambiguity is also expressed in the iconography of the pointed cap worn by the “poor poet”, for during the French Revolution the so-called Jacobin or liberty cap was used as a symbol of republican resistance. Seeing as it was only a mundane sleeping cap widely worn by the people, it could not be banned as a sign of subversive views.

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