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

The Lesson of the Nightingale

Oil on canvas, 105 x 86 cm
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

This is one of the first major works by Runge which he painted to express his love for his new wife Pauline, the daughter of a Dresden shoemaker. He made two versions, the first in 1802-03 and the second, more elaborate one, in 1805; only the later work survives. Like Friedrich's Tetschen 'altarpiece', it had an elaborate frame - in this case a painted frame-within-a-frame that was to be read as part of the work. Its various motifs - twining plants, oak leaves and small children - function as hieroglyphs, supporting the allegory. Though it was certainly not what would normally be understood as a landscape, it was based on an aspect of the natural world - one heard, not seen. One will look in vain for a nightingale in it, and it is immediately clear that this is a metaphorical equation of the idea of the young songbird with the human child.

Runge took his subject from an ode by the poet Friedrich Klopstock, in which Psyche - the female personification of the soul, shown as is usual with butterfly wings - instructs Cupid (Love) in song in an oakwood at evening, as the nightingales begin to sing; thus the theme is interwoven with the sound of birdsong.

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