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''The Bookworm''

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''The Bookworm'' ''The Bookworm''
''The Bookworm''
''The Bookworm'' "The Bookworm" ''The Bookworm''
  Carl Spitzweg - c. 1850

Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) is remembered as the greatest artist of the Biedermeier period in Germany and Austria following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The political stability and the growing urbanization and industrialization in these countries lead to the development of a new urban middle-class and with it, a new kind of audience for the arts. Consequently, painters began producing unpretentious, often sentimental depictions of domestic life, lacking political or social commentary, to nurture a demand for interior decoration by the growing middle-class.

While polemical art was discouraged by the conservative attitudes that pervaded Central Europe, there was still room for subtle political allusions and light satire. This is the case of Spitzweg's paintings, which poke gentle fun at the diverse characters who occupied the various social strata of his native Germany. Educated as a pharmacist, he took up painting while recovering from an illness and was almost entirely self-taught. Although his techniques were developed by copying the Dutch Masters, his style is believed to have been influenced by the satirical works of William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier.

Spitzweg created three versions of The Bookworm, and although he called it Librarian, the painting was popularized with this sardonic term referring to someone who’s laughed at for being a bookish but unrealistic person. The painter takes the viewer into a library of the second half of the 18th century, decorated in rococo style. The old librarian is standing at the top of the ladder, shortsightedly reading a book, while holding an open book in his right hand, the third one under his left arm, and with his knees the fourth. As he reads in the "Metaphysics" section of a large library a ray of sunshine falls through the window onto him, the open book, and the bookshelf, signaling the idea of “enlightenment”, but everything else points towards the opposite. His face seems to express a lack of understanding, and his clothes show that he is of prerevolutionary times: his knee-breeches, "culottes", were a symbol of "ancien régime" and conservatism ever since the French Revolution, when the enlightened chose to wear trousers and called themselves "sansculottes”. The size of the library is unknown, and the height of the library ladder can only be estimated: the globe suggests a possible height, but the floor is not visible, intensifying a sense of precariousness in the oblivious scholar's position, unaware of his surroundings and only interested in the knowledge of the past.


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