By the late 1880s, the German painter Fritz von Uhde (1848–1911) had become overtly Naturalist in his themes and style, additionally painting several major religious works.
His triptych of The Sacred Night painted in 1888-89 shows three scenes from a contemporary recasting of the story of the Nativity. In the centre is a very modern interpretation of the classic Virgin Mary and Child, with the adoration of the magi on the left, and a delightful angelic choir singing amidst the rafters of the barn on the right.
This time also saw his early family paintings. In The Nursery of 1889, he shows his three young daughters playing in the nursery of their apartment in the city of Munich, as his wife knits in the light pouring through the open window.
One of Uhde’s most typically Naturalist works is this portrait of a Little Heathland Princess from 1889, just five years after the death of Jules Bastien-Lepage. It follows the latter’s successful formula which had won him acclaim at the Salon: a high horizon, great foreground detail fading into a more painterly background, and a visibly poor waif. Her rather large feet are bare and filthy, and her blonde hair tousled, as she sucks on long hay stalk and looks defiantly straight at the viewer.
Uhde’s painting of field workers In the Morning from 1889 is quite different, though. Its horizon is lower, and its facture is thoroughly painterly even in the foreground, making it Impressionist in style. Few other artists appear to have painted in such contrasting styles within the same year.
In about 1890, Uhde was appointed Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
That year, he painted one of his finest modernised religious works, A Difficult Journey (1890). This imagines Joseph and the pregnant Mary walking on rough muddy tracks to Bethlehem, in a wintry European village. Joseph has a carpenter’s saw on his back as the tired couple move on through the dank mist.
Uhde must surely have seen the paintings of Christian Krohg and other Nordic artists of the day, including Harriet Backer, prompting him to make At the Window in 1890-91. A seamstress has been working at her sewing machine, and is now leaning out of an open window to get a breath of fresh air.
Uhde was one of the founding members of the Munich Secession in 1893, and later joined the Berlin Secession too. He played an active role in both, and with his academic responsibilities seems to have painted less through the mid 1890s.
By now his girls had grown up. In the summer of 1897, he painted them again in The Artist’s Daughters in the Garden.
The Artist’s Daughters on the Verandah from 1901 reminds me of Pierre Bonnard’s glorious views through French windows, although here the distant view is of the flowering trees in his garden.
Uhde’s beautiful pastel painting of Tobias and the Angel from 1902 is another religious work. Tobias meets an angel when he is fishing, but doesn’t recognise him as such. When he catches a giant fish, the angel advises him to preserve its guts, which he later uses to conquer a demon after he had married his cousin’s daughter.
I suspect that Uhde painted this quick sketch of The Model takes a Break, above, in the early years of the twentieth century, when he was painting Angel (c 1908-10), below.
The last painting I have by Uhde is his undated Christmas Night, showing his modern interpretation of the Holy Family of Joseph, the infant Christ, and the Virgin Mary in their improvised accommodation in Bethlehem.
Fritz von Uhde’s output fell after 1900, but he continued to paint until his death in Munich in 1911, at the age of 62. I think that he was one of the Naturalist painters in Germany, as well as painting some of the best religious works of the late nineteenth century, a time when social reform was starting to sweep through Europe.