WITTMER, Johann Michael
(b. 1802, Murnau, d. 1880, München)

Raphael's First Sketch of the 'Madonna della Sedia'

Oil on canvas, 99 x 75 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The lives of famous artists became a popular subject for painters during the nineteenth century. This was partly the result of a serious revival of historical interest that influenced the discipline of art history during the middle decades of the century, and partly the result of the Romantic preoccupation with the workings of artistic genius. Raphael was an obvious choice, since his undoubted success as a painter could be spiced with a rich variety of biographical details, including not only his dealings with powerful patrons but also his own personal relationships both as an infant prodigy and as a young man who died at the height of his creative powers.

The particular episode of Raphael painting the Madonna delta Sedia seems to have a German origin. According to the legend, a hermit, on being attacked by a pack of wolves, escaped into the branches of a tree from which he was eventually rescued by a vintner's daughter. In gratitude the hermit prophesied that both the tree and the girl would be immortalised. After several years the daughter married and had two children. The tree was felled and its timber used for wine barrels. While walking through the countryside Raphael saw the young mother with her two children and, overcome by their beauty, felt impelled to paint them. On discovering that he had left his painting materials behind, he drew the group in chalk on the bottom of one of the wine barrels, thereby immortalising both the tree and the girl as the hermit prophesied. Wittmer has set the scene of his painting near Rome, since the Colosseum can be seen through the loggia on the left.

Wittmer was born in northern Bavaria and trained as a goldsmith before entering the Academy in Munich in about 1820. He was a pupil of Johann Peter von Langer and Peter Cornelius, whom he assisted in painting the frescoes in the Glyptothek in about 1825. For several years he lived and worked in Italy (1828-32) before travelling in Sicily, Greece and Asia Minor. The main influences on his style were the Nazarene painters whom he met in Rome, namely Friedrich Overbeck and Johann Koch, whose daughter he married in 1838. He was essentially a history painter, but later in life he painted a number of altarpieces.