The frescoes of Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796) are the culminating achievement of 18th century Austrian fresco painting. His highly personal interpretation of the rococo gradually gave way to a more rational, classicizing approach.
Franz Anton Maulbertsch was born in Langenargen on Lake Constance on June 8, 1724, the son of a painter. He studied in Vienna with Peter van Roy and in 1741 enrolled at the academy, where he received the painting prize in 1750. Maulbertsch became a member of the academy in 1759 and a professor there in 1770, for which occasion he produced his Allegory of the Destiny of Art.
Although Maulbertsch produced easel paintings of great beauty (Holy Kindred, St. Narcissus, Self-portrait), he is chiefly and justly famous for his frescoes. In Vienna and other cities of Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary he created scores of vibrantly dramatic and brilliantly colored frescoes filled with an intense and highly personal religious feeling, beginning with the dome (1752) of the Church of Maria Treu in Vienna. Only the most outstanding can be mentioned here: the frescoes in the churches at Heiligenkreuz-Gutenbrunn (1757) and Sümeg in Hungary (1758), in the archepiscopal palace (1758-1760) at Kremsier (Kroměříž) in Moravia, and in the church (1765; destroyed in World War II) at Schwechat near Vienna. These examples of his early period are characterized by agitated compositions, shifting, fragmented color, and elongated ecstatic figures.
From about 1770 a change in Maulbertsch's style can be discerned, with a calmer, more static composition, cooler color, and clearer contours, all the result of his attempts to adjust to the new classicizing ideas becoming popular at the time. In the paintings in the church at Korneuburg (1773) and the frescoes in the Riesensaal (1775) of the Hofburg in Innsbruck and in Mühlfrauen (Dyje) in Bohemia, he shows the influence of these ideas. In his later works, as in the church at Pápa (1782-1783), the archbishop's palace (1783) at Steinamanger (Szombathely) in Hungary, and the library (1794) at Strahov near Prague, his attempts to vitalize the new rationalistic style with reminiscences of his earlier style do not succeed and result in works of high intellectual complexity and great accomplishment but which lack the emotional and visual appeal of those of his youth.
For all of his frescoes Maulbertsch produced oil sketches, which are among the most prized and popular of his works, filled with the expressionistic qualities associated with his name. The most famous is the Victory of St. James at Clavigo, made for the Schwechat frescoes. His etchings, such as the Allegory of Tolerance (1785), glorifying the edict of toleration of Emperor Joseph II (1781) and the Charlatan and the Peep-show Man (1785), mirrored the new interests in social reform and folklore of the late 18th century. In his Self-portrait (between 1767 and 1794) Maulbertsch created one of the most intriguing, searching Self-portraits in the history of art.
Little is known of the artist's personality, though he was apparently a man of simple, good-natured character, strangely at odds with his very dramatic painting. He lived the life of a quietly successful but not phenomenally wealthy citizen of Vienna. His wife of 34 years died in 1779; they were childless. The next year he married Katherina Schmutzer, the 24-year-old daughter of Jakob Schmutzer, head of the Engravers' Academy in Vienna and his old friend. Two sons were born of this marriage.
Maulbertsch was active in the artistic life of Vienna, participating in academic affairs and helping to found and direct the Pensionsgesellschaft bildender Künstler in 1788, a society created by artists to ensure financial security. He was elected an honorary member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Berlin the same year. While preparing to continue his work at Steinamanger in the decoration of its Cathedral, he died on Aug. 8, 1796, in Vienna, the last of the great Austrian painters of the 18th century, a relic of the rococo in a new epoch in history.
The standard monograph on Maulbertsch is in German. The only work in English to deal with the artist at any length is Eberhard Hempel, Baroque Art and Architecture in Central Europe (1965). □