Artist
Philipp Otto Runge
German painter and printmaker

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Philipp Otto Runge
German painter and printmaker
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Date of Birth

July 23, 1777

Place of Birth

Wolgast, Germany

Date of Death

December 02, 1810

Place of Death

Hamburg, Germany

Arty Fact

More about Philipp Otto Runge

Works by Philipp Otto Runge

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Contributor

Philipp Otto Runge had big dreams, but due to his early death from tuberculosis at 33, was tragically never quite able to bring them to fruition.

Despite his short career, Runge still managed to carve a space out for himself as one of the most important artists of German Romanticism, alongside his good friend, the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Born to a deeply religious family of shipbuilders in Wolgast, Runge received no artistic training whatsoever before the age of 20, when he enrolled in his first-ever drawing lessons. Eventually he would pack up and move to Copenhagen to study at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, thanks to the patronage and encouragement of his most enthusiastic supporter, his elder brother Daniel. At the Royal Academy, he was taught to draw and paint in the Neoclassical style typical of the time, but soon grew bored of the rigid traditionalism of his academic curriculum, declaring in 1802 that he thought history painting (considered the highest of high art at the time) was so last century. It was out, and according to Runge, something he termed the “new landscape” was in. Although he was totally right (Neoclassicism would gradually be phased out as the 19th century progressed, while Romanticism, with its heavy emphasis on subjective states and the wonders of nature, would become all the rage), his dramatic renunciation might have had just a little bit to do with his feelings of disappointment after submitting a drawing done in the Neoclassical style to an art contest in 1801. Needless to say, he didn’t win, and from that point on he decided to write off Neoclassicism entirely. 

Instead, he committed himself fully to his “new landscapes,” in which he sought to express through his own personalized iconography (consisting mainly of flowers, children, and the symbolic use of color) what he saw as the essential unity of humanity, nature, and the divine. Although raised Lutheran, Runge’s view of nature, like that of many Romantics, verged on the pantheistic: he sought in his art not to literally replicate nature, but rather to express through symbolism his sense of a divinity suffusing every facet of the natural world. These ideas culminated in an ambitious project which he worked on right up until his death: his Tageszeiten, a series of four artworks meant to represent the times of day, which in his worldview also corresponded to the four seasons. For eight years, Runge obsessively drafted and redrafted his preparation drawings for the project, but sadly was only able to convert one, The Morning, into color before he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1810. Even then he wasn’t satisfied—in fact, he disliked the completed painting so much that he ordered it to be destroyed after his death. He’d originally had grand plans for the paintings; one was meant to be hung on each wall of a Gothic chapel built specifically for that purpose, viewed to the accompaniment of music and poetry readings by his friend, the author Ludwig Tieck. Runge’s hope was to create a gesamtkunstwerk, which means “total work of art” and refers to the fusion of multiple forms (literature, visual arts, architecture, music, dance, etc.) into one artwork. Although the term wouldn’t be popularized until the mid-19th century by the composer Richard Wagner (and he, naturally, used it to refer to his own form of choice: opera), many of the early Romantics were fascinated by this idea of unifying multiple artforms into one cohesive piece. Runge, however, was one of the first to actually try to put these high-flown theories into practice by merging poetry, architecture, music, and painting into a single project, even if his untimely death meant that his grand plans would remain tragically incomplete.

In addition to drawing and painting, Runge also dabbled in the applied arts, designing book covers, playing cards, and even the architectural plans for a tomb, ornately decorated with plantlike designs in a style anticipating the Art Nouveau movement. From the age of 13, he made paper cut-out silhouettes with his mother on the days he stayed home from school—and since his childhood was ridden with various illnesses, he  ended up getting a lot of practice, eventually becoming a master of the form. He also recorded two German folktales toward the end of his life, "The Fisherman and His Wife" and "The Juniper Tree"both of which were included in the first edition of "Grimms’ Fairy Tales" in 1812. While many of the original tales of the brothers Grimm are notoriously gruesome (before being Disneyfied, of course), "The Juniper Tree" is actually one of the most horrifying of all, containing instances of child abuse, murder, and a bit of cannibalism thrown in for good measure. If it wasn’t for Runge, we wouldn’t have access to that story today, so, uh...we should thank him for that, I guess? I’m not sure if that’s what the world needed, but he did a lot of other cool stuff, so we’ll let him off the hook for this one.

Gruesome children’s stories aside, Runge’s theoretical writings, particularly his "Color Sphere" (1810), are considered to be just as important to the art world as his paintings. Runge was completely obsessed with the symbolic possibilities of color, and corresponded at length with his close friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the topic. Both men believed that color had the potential to directly stimulate a person’s emotions, making them a powerful symbolic force in art. For Goethe, who was not only a super famous writer but also a kinda famous scientist, there were four primary colors that directly corresponded to the four humors (aka bodily fluids), a concept passed down from ancient medicine. These humors were believed to correspond to different moods, influencing people’s overall temperaments depending on how much of each humor they had in their body. For Goethe, each humor also had a primary color attached to it; when a person saw said color, the associated humor would be stimulated, thus affecting their mood. Runge, like his friend Goethe, believed that primary colors had the power to directly stimulate the emotions, but for him there were three, not four: red, yellow, and blue. Sound familiar? That’s because many people still use a version of Runge’s color system today. In fact, if you’ve ever taken a basic art class, chances are you learned these very same primary colors in school.

Although fairly well-known during his lifetime, Runge was all but forgotten until about a century after his death. He was revived in the early 20th century by members of the Bauhaus school, such as Paul Klee, whose painting Flower Myth (1918) appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by Runge’s The Morning, and Johannes Itten, who reworked Runge’s color sphere into his own color system, called the “color star,” in 1921. Parallels with Runge’s ideas on the symbolic qualities of color can also be found in the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, another teacher at the Bauhaus, although he described colors as producing “spiritual vibrations” rather than emotions (isn’t that just a fancy way of saying “feelings” though?). Runge, like Kandinsky, was rumored to have synesthesia, which might account at least in part for their similar associations between color and mood.

Although none of Runge’s paintings reached the iconic status of, say, Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), he was a key player in the intellectual climate leading up to German Romanticism, and exerted a significant amount of influence on the development of modern art in the 20th century. And if it hadn’t been for the tuberculosis, who knows what else might have happened? Maybe he would have finished that gesamtkunstwerk after all.

Sources

Sources

  1. Aichele, K. Porter. “Paul Klee’s ‘Flower Myth’: Themes from German Romanticism Reinterpreted.” Notes in the History of Art 8, no. 3 (1989): 16-29.
  2. Brown, Hilda Meldrum. The Quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk & Richard Wagner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  3. Burton, David. “Red, Yellow, and Blue: The Historical Origin of Color Systems.” Art Education 45, no. 6 (1992): 39-44.
  4. “Color - Bauhaus.” The Getty Research Institute. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/bauhaus/ne....
  5. “The Fisherman and His Wife: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.” University of Pittsburgh Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm019.html.
  6. “Gesamtkunstwerk.” The Art Story. Accessed May 13, 2020. https://www.theartstory.org/definition/gesamtkunstwerk/.
  7. “The Juniper Tree: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.” University of Pittsburgh. Accessed May 13 2020. https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm047.html.
  8. Littlejohns, Richard. “Philipp Otto Runge’s ‘Tageszeiten’ and Their Relationship to Romantic Nature Philosophy.” Studies in Romanticism 42, no. 1 (2003): 55-74.
  9. Maslova-Levin, Elena. “Kandinsky on the inner meanings of colours.” Sonnets in Colour (blog). July 10, 2015. http://sonnetsincolour.org/2015/07/kandinsky-on-the-inner-meanings-of- colours/.
  10. Neumeyer, Alfred. “On German Romanticism and Runge.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 7, no. 1 (1973): 100-102.
  11. “Philipp Otto Runge’s Times of Day.” The Getty Research Institute. Accessed May 12, 2020. https://www.getty.edu/research/special_collections/notable/runge.html.
  12. “The Small Morning.” Web Gallery of Art. Accessed May 12, 2020. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/r/runge/3morning.html.

Featured Content

Here is what Wikipedia says about Philipp Otto Runge

Philipp Otto Runge (German: [ˈʁʊŋə]; 23 July 1777, Wolgast – 2 December 1810, Hamburg) was a Romantic German painter and draughtsman. Although he made a late start to his career and died young, he is considered among the best German Romantic painters.

Life and work

Runge was born as the ninth of eleven children in Wolgast, Western Pomerania, then under Swedish rule, in a family of shipbuilders with ties to the Prussian nobility of Sypniewski / von Runge family. As a sickly child he often missed school and at an early age learned the art of scissor-cut silhouettes from his mother, practised by him throughout his life. In 1795 he began a commercial apprenticeship at his older brother Daniel's firm in Hamburg. In 1799 Daniel supported Runge financially to begin study of painting under Jens Juel at the Copenhagen Academy. In 1801 he moved to Dresden to continue his studies, where he met Caspar David Friedrich, Ludwig Tieck, and his future wife Pauline Bassenge. He also began extensive study of the writings of the 17th century mystic Jakob Boehme. In 1803, on a visit to Weimar, Runge unexpectedly met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the two formed a friendship based on their common interests in color and art.

In 1804 he married and moved with his wife to Hamburg. Due to imminent war dangers (Napoleonic siege of Hamburg) they relocated in 1805 to his parental home in Wolgast where they remained until 1807. In 1805 Runge's correspondence with Goethe on the subject of his artistic work and color became more intensive. Returning to Hamburg in 1807, he and his brother Daniel formed a new company in which he remained active until the end of his life. In the same year he developed the concept of the color sphere. In 1808 he intensified his work on color, including making disk color mixture experiments. He also published written versions of two local folk fairy tales The fisherman and his wife and The almond tree, later included among the tales of the brothers Grimm. In 1809 Runge completed his work on the manuscript of Farben-Kugel (Color sphere), published in 1810 in Hamburg. In the same year, ill with tuberculosis, Runge painted another self-portrait as well as portraits of his family and brother Daniel. The last of his four children was born on the day after Runge's death.

Runge was of a mystical, deeply Christian turn of mind, and in his artistic work he tried to express notions of the harmony of the universe through symbolism of colour, form, and numbers. He considered blue, yellow, and red to be symbolic of the Christian trinity and equated blue with God and the night, red with morning, evening, and Jesus, and yellow with the Holy Spirit (Runge 1841, I, p. 17).

As with some other romantic artists, Runge was interested in Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work, which was an attempt to fuse all forms of art. He planned such a work surrounding a series of four paintings called The Times of the Day, designed to be seen in a special building, and viewed to the accompaniment of music and his own poetry. In 1803 Runge had large-format engravings made of the drawings of the Times of the Day series that became commercially successful and a set of which he presented to Goethe. He painted two versions of Morning (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), but the others did not advance beyond drawings. "Morning" was the start of a new type of landscape, one of religion and emotion.

Runge was also one of the best German portraitists of his period; several examples are in Hamburg. His style was rigid, sharp, and intense, at times almost naïve.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Philipp Otto Runge.