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James van Dyke
Associate Professor of Modern European Art History, University of Missouri, Columbia

Franz Seraph Von Lenbach Portrait of Prince Otto von Bismarck, painted in the mid- to late 1880s, is a typical example of the painter’s work of the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Like most of his pictures of those years, this painting takes as its subject a prominent member of imperial Germany’s economic, social, and political elite. In this case the sitter was the man who had played an instrumental role in the founding of the imperial German nation-state in 1871 and who, by 1895, had become a larger-than-life figure to many Germans. Described with painterly dash, the figure of the elderly yet apparently still robust Prussian statesman emerges auratically from a dark, mysterious ground in which it is difficult to distinguish anything clearly. Light falls from the viewer’s left onto Bismarck’s hands, which are sheathed in yellowish leather gloves, folded over a walking stick and rendered with summary virtuosity. The light even more strongly illuminates his face, which is the unmistakable focal point of the picture. Bismarck turns toward this light, looking not at the viewer but rather up and into the distance with an expression that seems to mix imperiousness and thoughtful reflection. Though Bismarck is soberly dressed, the understated Titianesque elegance of the picture and the richness of its frame produce an effect of carefully controlled magnificence. The picture contains painterly flourishes but challenges no traditional artistic standards. This was an object that plainly spoke for, not to, power.

Lenbach began in the mid-nineteenth century as a painter of pleasant pastoral genre scenes but made his fortune as Germany’s best-known high-society portraitist between 1870 and his death in 1904. Today, however, Lenbach’s work is marginalized by art history, and only rarely does it hang in museums, which devote themselves primarily to the art of the modernist avant-gardes.1 This is unfortunate, because pictures such as this portrait occupied an important position in the field of German cultural production. Pictures like this one can be examined to understand the materialization of ideology, the measurement of success, and the convergence of patronage and politics.


The Painting

Lenbach was an ardent admirer and close personal acquaintance of Bismarck, visiting him frequently at home and publicly identifying himself with the towering Prussian politician in a variety of ways. Above all, Lenbach profiled himself in the three decades after the founding of the German Empire as “the Bismarck painter.” While it was once said that Lenbach had no idea how many portraits of the man he had painted, recent accounts have estimated the number to be between 80 and 150. Many were commissioned or acquired by prominent public museums and private collectors in Germany.2

The painting in the collection of the Kemper Art Museum is a typical example of this large body of work, which consists largely of a variety of busts, half-portraits, and three-quarter figures. Quite a number of them depict Bismarck in uniform. This painting, however, belongs to another type, namely one that shows him wearing civilian clothes while on the grounds of the wooded estate that was given to him to reward his service to the new nation-state. The stone wall and vegetation just discernible in the shadows suggest this location. The popularity of this representation of the empire’s elder statesman is suggested by the number of variations and replicas of this type that the painter made.

In this picture and others of its type, Lenbach avoided the regalia of imperial authority frequently visible in caricatures of Bismarck, whose policies against the Social Democratic Party and Catholics were sharply divisive, and in history paintings including Bismarck by official painters such as Anton von Werner. Lenbach depicted Bismarck not as a man identified with and defined by the Prussian state and the Hohenzollern dynasty but rather as the wise patriarch of a bourgeois nation.3 This image is in keeping with what Friedrich Naumann wrote about Lenbach in 1909, claiming the artist’s independence from aristocratic culture. Specifically, Naumann related how the painter had left a teaching position in Weimar in the 1850s to escape court life there and described him as later becoming an “artist who could paint aristocrats without becoming a courtier.”4 This portrait reinforced the conservative cult of Bismarck but was not the work of a court artist.


The Frame

The magnificent neo-Renaissance gilt frame in which the viewer encounters Lenbach’s painting certainly adds to the aesthetic impact and potential political message of the portrait. Such tabernacle or aedicular frames were popular in Europe in the late nineteenth century, as a taste for historical styles emerged with the wealth created by the industrial revolution. They not only elevated the pictures they enclosed, as elaborate frames always had, but they also referred to the elite culture of the Renaissance and thus signified a link between the patronage of the Medici, for instance, and the buyers of paintings by artists such as Lenbach.5 Lenbach himself was a serious art collector and placed Titian’s Portrait of Philip II—or a copy of it—in a frame very similar to the one in the Museum’s collection.6 The Bismarck portrait’s frame corresponded to the taste for opulence of the wealthy institutions and patrons who desired such pictures. It is an expression of the fortunes made during the economic boom that followed the founding of the German Empire in 1871, the so-called Gründerzeit.

At the same time the frame also advances a political message. Most obviously, the Latin inscription on its pedestal describes Bismarck as the founder of the empire, as the defender of Germany, and as a man consumed by service to his country: “Princeps Otto de Bismarck / Imperii Fundator / Propugnator Germaniae / Patriae Inserviendo Consumor.” Trophies of war—breastplates, helmets, weapons, shields, and banners—carved in low relief on the moldings to the left and right of the painting add a triumphal note. The frame thus bespeaks Bismarck’s role in the formation of the German Empire on the basis of military victories against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and France.

Lenbach employed variants of this frame design on several occasions. In addition to Titian’s Portrait of Philip II, a second portrait at the Bismarck estate in Germany is mounted in an almost identical frame, although with a less elaborate inscription and with eagles on the pedestal.7 A photograph of Lenbach’s house taken in the late 1890s shows one of his portraits of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke in a frame that appears to be virtually identical to the Kemper Art Museum’s.8 The motifs on the frame thus were not tailored specifically to Bismarck. Yet one can understand them as elements of a programmatic iconography distinguishing between the Prussian bourgeois virtues of austerity and masculinity embodied by Bismarck (and Moltke) and the sensuosity of those whom he had subjugated (exemplified both by the female nudes embossed on the shields on the lateral moldings and by the two pairs of satyr and nymph in high relief on the frame’s pedestal). Seen in this way, the frame not only serves as a splendid supplement to the sober canvas that it surrounds, exalting the mythical figure of Bismarck, but also establishes a moralizing, gendered contrast and hierarchy between the victor and the vanquished, the virtuous and the licentious.


The Definition of Success

The brewing magnate Adolphus Busch acquired this painting when it was among the five by Lenbach, selected by Emperor Wilhelm II himself, that were posthumously included in the official German art exhibition at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Given Busch’s deep ties to Germany, his wealth, and his taste for magnificence, the desirability of a critically acclaimed portrait of the great Prussian leader by the famous Bavarian artist is easy to explain.9 Busch belonged to the class of people to whom Lenbach’s expensive Bismarck portraits had always appealed most.10 At the moment, however, it is unclear why Busch’s son August donated the picture to Washington University in St. Louis in 1929. Perhaps this was a late effect of World War I. Several Bismarck portraits reportedly hung at the brewery until 1914 but were then removed, and the family had faced sharp attacks during the war.11 Perhaps Busch wished to align his family with a traditional conservatism far from the radical nationalism that marked post–World War I German politics, especially in the form of Nazism.12

In any case, the popularity of Lenbach’s work had declined precipitously by 1929, as modern art moved to the center of the international art world. In the decade before 1904, when Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck was among the 317 works sent to St. Louis by the German government, new artistic movements had already begun to emerge in Germany, challenging the cultural establishment in which Lenbach had been such a prominent figure. The artists associated with these new trends paved the way for the eventual establishment of modernism in Germany but were not represented in the German pavilion in St. Louis in 1904. The judgment of posterity about their exclusion has not been kind. As the historian Peter Paret characterized it in a groundbreaking study of the emergence of German modernism, the official German art exhibition in St. Louis “consisted almost entirely of mediocre and bad paintings,” of “miles of visual cotton candy.”13

In the late nineteenth century the society portraiture of Franz von Lenbach, the son of a Bavarian stonemason who parlayed his talent and connections into the status of a “painter prince,” epitomized bourgeois cultural success, distinct not only from mass culture and the nascent modernism of that time but also from the art associated with the imperial court. His work received the public encomia, state prizes, and high prices that signified its respectability and prestige for people who thought in such terms. By today’s standards, however, the ones to which Paret gives voice, pictures such as Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck are bound to fail. Yet it is important to recall that at any given moment multiple artistic positions, their respective claims of quality and value, and their respective definitions of success struggle for legitimacy. These rival positions are not isolated: “Every position, even the dominant one, depends for its very existence, and for the determinations it imposes on its occupants, on the other positions constituting the field.”14 Thus, if one wishes to understand the total modern history of art, it is crucial to engage with pictures such as Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck. To ignore them is to produce a distorted account of the past, as selective, affirmative, and troublesome in its way as some might find Lenbach’s celebration of power was a century ago.

  • 1 One notable exception in the United States is the exhibition Celebrity Soul: Lenbach’s Portraits, presented by the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, in 2005; see It should be mentioned that the Frye is atypical in its focus on academic and juste milieu German art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Germany, scholarship on Lenbach exists. Even there, however, it is unusual to encounter his work on permanent public display in museums in places other than Munich.
  • 2 See Friedrich Naumann, “Lenbachs Bismarckbilder,” in Form und Farbe (Berlin-Schöneberg: Buchverlag der “Hilfe,” 1909); Sonja von Baranow, Franz von Lenbach: Leben und Werk (Cologne: DuMont, 1986), 138; and Alice Laura Arnold, “Zwischen Kunst und Kult: Lenbachs Bismarck-Porträts und Repliken,” in Lenbach: Sonnenbilder und Porträts, ed. Reinhold Baumstark (Munich: Pinakothek-Dumont, 2004), 152.
  • 3 See Arnold, “Zwischen Kunst und Kult,” 166.
  • 4 See Naumann, “Lenbachs Bismarckbilder,” 75.
  • 5 See Eva Mendgen et al., In Perfect Harmony: Picture + Frame, 1850–1920 (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum; Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders, 1995), 29–42, 75–83. For more on this in general, see the exhibition Tabernacle Frames from the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2007,
  • 6 A photograph of the painting in its frame is found in Gollek and Ranke, Franz von Lenbach, 1836–1904, 172. On Lenbach’s engagement with Titian, see also Stephanie R. Miller, “A Tale of Two Portraits: Titian’s Seated Portraits of Philip II,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 28, no. 1 (March 2012),
  • 7 This inscription, in German, reads: “Otto Fuerst von Bismarck. Kanzler des Deutschen Reiches” (Otto, Prince Bismarck. Chancellor of the German Empire).
  • 8 For a reproduction and photographs, see Arnold, “Zwischen Kunst und Kult,” 154, and Mendgen, In Perfect Harmony, 38–39.
  • 9 A newspaper clipping from the time emphasizes Lenbach’s technical mastery and “almost infallible psychology” while describing the painting (or one like it) as “destined to become a great historical representation of the mighty chancellor.” Unidentified source, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, object file WU 2929.
  • 10 See Arnold, “Zwischen Kunst und Kult,” 163. On the prices fetched by these pictures, see Mehl, Franz von Lenbach, 32.
  • 11 For more on this topic, see Peter Hernon and Terry Ganey, Under the Influence: The Unauthorized Story of the Anheuser-Busch Dynasty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 92–93, 97–98, 100–102, 143.
  • 12 This possibility was suggested by Sabine Eckmann at the symposium “ The Legacy of German Art and Culture in St. Louis,” held at Washington University in St. Louis, September 7, 2013.
  • 13 Peter Paret, The Berlin Secession: Modernism and Its Enemies in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980), esp. 149, 153.
  • 14 Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed,” in The Field of Cultural Production, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 30.