Eduard Steinbrück(1802-1882) was a Romantic German artist known for his paintings inspired by legends and literature. Some biographical information can be found on Steinbrück online but I could find nothing which discussed the content of his work. So I believe this is the first article to discuss Steinbrück’s work in a cultural context.
Steinbrück’s The Nymph of the Düssel is comparable to Ingres’ The Source , both figures holds vases of running water. The figure in Ingres’ painting represents a spring which in Greek classical literature, is sacred to the Muses and a source of poetic inspiration. The interpretation of Ingres’ painting seems appropriate for Steinbrück’s painting as well. I think Steinbrück’s picture is much more beautiful than The Source. The nymph’s figure is more natural and appealing. The rendering of her hair and the running water are unsurpassed.
Steinbrück painted a few charming pictures of children bathing. Many Romantics considered childhood an ideal state which is lost by disenchantment due to the demands of the modern world. The influential philosopher Friedrich Schiller wrote:
“Our childhood is all that remains of nature in humanity, such as civilization has made it, of untouched, unmutilated nature. It is, therefore, not wonderful, when we meet out of us the impress of nature, that we are always brought back to the idea of our childhood”.
Steinbrück turned to fairy tales, as did many of his German contemporaries, to revive the enchantment of childhood. It was not a coincidence that when the Brothers Grimm were collecting their fairy tales, painting also turned to this genre. The term “Waldeinsamkeit” (forest seclusion) comes from Ludwig Tieck’s fairy tale Blond Eckbert. The term express the need for spiritual refuge. In fairy tales the mysterious forest is rich in symbols, a source of wonder and as well as fear.
Marie with the Elves depicts a scene from Ludwig Tieck’s fairy tale The Elves. Marie was running a race with her friend Andres but ran in a different direction than him and came upon the enchanted garden of the elves. In Steinbrück’s painting, Marie is delighted by the whimsical activities of the bathing elves.
As Max Weber noted, the industrial revolution had the effect of disenchantment, in previous cultures spirits were thought to live in the trees, but the rationalism of the Enlightenment dismissed such views. In the absence of such spirituality, nature was exploited for profit. At the end of Tieck’s story, Marie returns to her family and the elves leave the forest which had a devastating effect:
“The same year there came a blight; the woods died away, the springs ran dry; and the scene, which had once been the joy of every traveller, was in autumn standing waste, naked and bald; scarcely showing here and there, in the sea of sand, a spot or two where grass, with a dingy greenness, still grew up. The fruit-trees all withered, the vines faded away”.
It seems the Elves leaving the forest is symbolic of modern man’s disenchantment. All of nature withered because it was perceived to be without spirit. Romanism was a reaction to such a view. In more recent times there has been a renewed respect for nature by environmentalists as chronicled in James William Gibson’s book A Reenchanted World. But I wonder if there a true reenchantment trend? The belief in the spiritual realm was expressed though enchanting human figures, but magical paintings like Steinbrück’s hardly a trend in contemporary art. Not only is nature perceived to be without spirit in the modern view but so is humanity. The dismissal of the human soul devalues everything, there must be a reenchantment in human realm. We should return to the secluded forest to be inspired by the spring of the muses.