RUNGE, Philipp Otto
(b. 1777, Wolgast, d. 1810, Hamburg)

The Small Morning

Oil on canvas, 109 x 86 cm
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

To the seventeenth-century German mystic Jacob Boehme, Runge owed the concept that flowers can symbolize different human states. With their cycle from first bud to death, their response to light, and as manifestations of God's purpose on earth, flowers were for Runge the most revealing of all natural forms. Together with small children and musical instruments they formed the allegorical base of his most ambitious work, a series on the theme of Times of Day. This was intended to take the form of four huge oil paintings, and to be experienced in a Gothic chapel to the music of choirs and poetry by his friend the writer Ludwig Tieck. This grand plan never materialized; the designs were published in some rather unsatisfactory engravings in 1806 and 1807, while only one of the four subjects, Morning, was developed in oil, in two versions (the larger was later cut into fragments, having failed to satisfy the painter himself).

The painting represents a supreme statement of the nature mysticism associated with the Romantic movement, and is undoubtedly the masterpiece of Runge's short life. He began work on it in Dresden, where he had been greatly moved by Raphael's Sistine Madonna in the picture gallery, and his tightly structured, vertical compositions have some of the qualities of altarpieces. As in the earlier Nightingale's Lesson, they are surrounded by hieroglyphic borders, combining Christian and mythological symbolism. Individual plants, minutely scrutinized like botanical specimens, are integrated into visionary patterns. In Morning, Runge was able to incorporate his researches into colour theory, based on association and the revelatory power of light. The small version contains a passage of sublimely lovely pure landscape painting — the summer meadow on whose carpet of flowers a baby wakes at dawn.

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