The Baroque period ends in Germany when throughout the rest of Europe an artistic tradition, which has taken place without interruption since antiquity, dissolves to start a new era caused by a total upheaval in the philosophical, economic and social fields. It followed that architecture – and to a lesser extent also the figurative arts – subsequently resurrected, in accordance with the changing spiritual needs of the new century, various styles of past eras; at the same time art, freed from the shackles hitherto imposed on it, had gained greater autonomy, particularly in painting with impressionism. The two schools, historical painting and impressionism, developed simultaneously, influencing and complementing each other. German art, which by its nature and tendency was more strongly attracted to historical elements than to impressionistic ones, all tending towards formal problems, participated intensely during the nineteenth century in the exaltation so characteristic in this period, of the artist’s individuality. But its influence on international art has been exercised through single isolated efforts rather than through constant and lasting influence.
In architecture we proceed to a recapitulation of all styles in their historical succession (classicism, romanticism, neo-Renaissance), which leads to an eclecticism capable of a free reworking of all forms of the past. The ever-increasing search for plastic forms and simplicity, typical of the last form of Rococo, had in fact prepared a suitable ground for the rebirth of the principles of classical architecture. Its main center was Berlin, and K.-F. Schinkel was the skilled propagandist whose spirit of severity and sobriety these principles were well suited. Similarly, in the centers where Gothic art flourished, medieval romantic fashion flourished more vigorously (works for the completion of the cathedral of Cologne). The Renaissance was mainly supported by Germany Semper (theater of Opera in Dresden), who with pen and works proclaimed it the most suitable style for the modern spirit, because it is a synthesis of classical and medieval ideals. After the founding of the Reich, a very pretentious neo-baroque was developed, characterized by gigantic dimensions and little refinement of details (Parliament building in Berlin, by the architect P. Walloth).
Even in the figurative arts, neoclassicism appears to be a reaction against the Baroque and its derivations, of which it is easy to trace even the most distant beginnings. But the effort to reach the maximum formal clarity was so contrary to the artistic ideals of the North, that German artists were able to implement it only in the classical lands. In fact it is in Rome that AI Carstens with his work and that of his pupils who emigrated there from Germany (K. Reinhardt, Ios. Koch, P. Cornelius) demonstrated the great fruitfulness of which this art born from an ideal was capable purely negative, but also its sterility in the practical field. More valid support offered to romanticism – which from the formal point of view is linked to neo-classicism – the contemporary ethical and national currents: the Nazarenes in Rome and their fellow believers in various parts of Germany (IF Overbeck, F. v. Olivier, I. Schnorr, E. v. Steinle, M. v. Schwind), reconnecting to the artistic ideals of the past, tried to obtain that rebirth that classicism naturally reached in the Romanesque countries. In the second half of the nineteenth century, this retrospective approach was exhausted, resulting in a genre and historical content painting inspired by Dutch painting.
Alongside these historical tendencies, the only ones officially recognized at the time, naturalistic schools flourished everywhere, which, while retaining the very desire of German art to express feelings strongly, participated in the study of the problems that led to Impressionism (Ph. O. Runge in Hamburg, KD Friedrich in Dresden, K. Blechen and later A. Menzel in Berlin, etc.) or revived engraving as a means of national expression (L. Richter, A. Rethel and others). Some of these artists, particularly those who by means of engraving exercised their influence on wider circles, immediately became the darlings of the public, while others were re-evaluated only in 1906, when the Berlin exhibition for the first centenary of the founding of the German Confederation provided the opportunity for a total review of current ideas on the development of art in Germany over the past hundred years. But, however rich and colorful the picture that arises from the multiplicity of so many schools and from the activity of so many local masters of undisputed value, the superiority of the artists of the penultimate quarter of the century is evident, who enjoyed a more secure national conscience than not those of the previous generation. A more intense sense of life and a height of purpose proper to their era is common to these artists: however it is not possible – despite some ties that unite them – to consider them as a group or a school or as representatives of a homogeneous national tradition.
This isolation, with respect to both the past and the future, casts a dramatic reflection on their artistic life. In fact, the most important German artists of the century. XIX are solitary, whose eminent place was a conquest of their own. Their names are: A. Feuerbach, A. Böcklin, H. Thoma (among painters), A. Hildebrandt (among sculptors). Everyone, except Thoma, spent most of their life in Italy.
The end of the century brings an emancipation from the past and a sense of conscious modernity, which is also reflected in the creation of progressive artistic circles (Sezession of Munich, Berlin, etc.). In painting M. Liebermann, F. Uhde, W. Trübner, Max Slevogt, Lovis Corinth are associated with the impressionistic current; in engraving, an artistic language independent of painting is sought and placed at the immediate service of sentiment and imagination (Max Klinger).