Sharp and angular, the Saxon fortress of Königstein, about 25 miles southeast of Dresden, is silhouetted against a pale sky. The artist, Bellotto, was from Venice, and he has applied the traditions of Venetian view painting – a high level of detail, the large scale – to this northern landscape. It is one of the five views of Königstein commissioned from Bellotto by King Augustus III of Poland in 1756.
Bellotto has treated the crumbling stone walls with miniaturist precision: each window and scaffolding pole is highlighted, and soldiers created with just a few dots of paint stand guard on the ramparts. This minute observation is combined with a broad panorama. Soft sunlight picks out the men in a grassy glade and a woman with her children while, a little higher, a slice of intense light illuminates the livestock perched on a craggy ledge and a horseman descending into the valley beyond.
Sharp and angular, the Saxon fortress of Königstein is silhouetted against a pale sky. It sits atop a rocky outcrop about 25 miles southeast of Dresden, in present-day Germany, overlooking the Elbe valley. The artist, Bellotto, was from Venice, and he has applied the traditions of Venetian view painting – a high level of detail, the large scale – to this northern landscape.
He seems to have relished the challenge of painting this imposing site. He has treated the crumbling stone walls with miniaturist precision, and each window and scaffolding pole is highlighted. Soldiers created with just a few dots of paint stand guard on the ramparts. The clouds on the horizon give way to a shimmering light which warms the rocks and walls, and casts shadows which emphasise their angular geometry.
We move from the careful detail of the craggy rocks and rising walls to a broad panorama, the sweeping landscape softening the militaristic presence of the fortress. Peasants and bystanders are dotted about the scene, creating an idyllic pastoral atmosphere. Sunlight falls on the curving path, gently sloping fields, trees and figures, picking out the men in a grassy glade, and a woman and her young children. A little higher, a slice of intense light illuminates the livestock perched on a craggy ledge and a horseman descending into the valley beyond. Higher still, it touches a small group of adventurers navigating the steep terrain, dwarfed by the cliff face that towers above them. The cattle, and the cowherd leaning against one of his animals in deep shade on the far right, recall pastoral motifs found in earlier art, particularly the seventeenth-century Dutch Italianate genre painting. Such models could be found in etchings after artists like Nicolaes Berchem, whose work was in high demand in Italy throughout the eighteenth century.
Bellotto trained in his uncle Canaletto’s studio. As a young artist, he produced capricci scenes and views of Venice, such as Venice: Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal facing Santa Croce. He was called to Dresden in 1747, and appointed Court Painter to King Augustus III of Poland and Elector of Saxony in 1748, receiving the highest annual salary ever paid by that court to an artist. North of the Alps, he worked independently and started to produce work on a grander and more ambitious scale. The large scale and distinctive subject of this painting shows that change, and it provides a striking contrast to Canaletto’s work. Bellotto leaned towards a lighter tonality and a cooler palette; his figures are more characterised, and – particularly in this work – more skilfully integrated into the landscape.
Commissioned by Augustus III in 1756, The Fortress of Königstein from the North is one of five paintings of Königstein, each from a different viewpoint – two, now in Manchester Art Gallery, show the castle from within the walls, and the other two, in The National Gallery of Art in Washington and in a private collection, are of exterior views. The fortress had served as a refuge during times of conflict, as well as a treasury and store for the royal art collection; it had been immensely important for Saxon kings and electors since its construction in 1589. All of these pictures are characterised by panoramic compositions, strongly contrasted light and shadow, and meticulous attention to detail.
The five Königstein pictures were almost certainly intended to complement Bellotto’s 17 views of Dresden and 11 of Pirna that decorated the royal palace in Dresden (many of which are now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). However, the escalation of the Seven Years’ War and invasion of Dresden by Prussian troops just after the series was commissioned meant that the paintings were never delivered. King Augustus III fled to Warsaw, and the royal picture galleries were emptied and the works moved to the fortress at Königstein for safekeeping. Bellotto received a payment for the pictures in 1758; we are not sure what happened to them after this. That same year he left Dresden for the safety of Vienna, though he returned a few years later. In 1766 he settled in Warsaw, where he spent the rest of his career. All five of the pictures were imported into Britain during the artist’s lifetime, and until 1993 all of them were in British collections.
Unlike many of Bellotto’s urban views and others in the Königstein series, he did not replicate The Fortress of Konigstein from the North – it’s therefore a unique depiction of the subject. But he did produce etchings of the views painted during his Dresden years, which were intended for a wider audience. A large print of our painting is particularly striking and has minor differences to the original: the rocky hillside appears higher than in the painting, the scaffolding has been removed and the foreground has denser foliage.
There are a significant number of Italian view paintings in the National Gallery’s collection, mostly of Venice, but Bellotto was one of the few Venetian view painter to work north of the Alps. The Fortress of Königstein from the North is an outstanding example of his work, painted at the peak of his career.
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