Commentary by Hovak Najarian
In the early nineteenth century there were two, often opposing, stylistic directions in art; Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Neoclassicists turned to the works of the Greeks, Romans, and the Renaissance as the basis for their work and made art an intellectual pursuit. It was the official art of the academies in France but the romanticists of this time preferred to follow their hearts and often painted subjects having dramatic content. Friedrich Overbeck was born in Germany where a tendency toward romanticism was strong. As a mature painter his subjects were usually Biblical and like the romanticists, they contained emotional content but he lived in Rome and as seen in Christ Resurrects the Daughter of Jairus, he was influenced greatly by the classicism found in Renaissance painting.
As a young man, Overbeck studied art at the Vienna Academy and it was during this time that he recognized his desire to bring a spiritual quality back into art. In 1909, while still a student, he and others of likeminded values founded a group called, “The Brotherhood of Saint Luke,” and imagined being like medieval guild painters. A year later he and his friends went to Rome where they decided to live in a former monastery and remain somewhat in seclusion like monks. They were joined by several other German artists who shared Overbeck’s desire for spirituality in art. Because they affected Biblical manners in their clothes and hair styles, they soon were dubbed, “Nazarenes.” Rome became Overbeck’s adopted home and he lived there for the remainder of his life.
Overbeck had long admired the work of Albrecht Durer and when he arrived in Rome he studied the works of Raphael as well. The influence of both of these artists is evident in Christ Resurrects the Daughter of Jairus. The robes are very much in the style of Raphael and, in the tableau-like dramatic setting and composition it has elements in common with Durer’s woodcuts. Overbeck’s subject for this painting (which is primarily a drawing with added watercolors) is based on accounts in the Gospels in which a patron of the synagogue, Jairus, asks Jesus to come to heal his dying daughter. By the time Jesus was asked, however, his daughter may have been already dead. When Jesus arrived at Jairus’ home, a wailing crowed was there and they laughed when they were told the girl is not dead but asleep. Jesus sent them out and took the girl’s hand saying, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” Overbeck’s painting depicts the moment when the girl rises up in bed looking pale and gaunt. Her eyes are still closed.
In this painting, the figure of Christ gets our attention immediately; he is in a dark blue robe and placed in the center of the painting. The figure of Christ also serves as a visual barrier that keeps our focus on the left half of the painting where the miraculous event is occurring. Jesus is holding the girl’s hand and at the same time he is looking directly at her face. Behind the girl with his hands clasped is Jairus and off to the right and away from the immediate action is a passive group of figures that came with Jesus; they are waiting quietly as Christ takes the girl’s hand and asks her to get up. Farther back are figures leaving as they exit through an arched opening; it is likely these are the last of the people told by Jesus to leave. Like the neoclassicists, Overbeck has kept his composition cool and uncluttered; our eyes move to different areas of this painting with ease but we always return to the interaction between Jesus and the girl.
This exceptionally well-balanced composition does not break new ground in art, yet in Overbeck’s painting there is subdued color that gives it serenity. It gives us a story without overwhelming us with details. There is a sense that he wanted to depict this event simply and honestly without taking attention away from it with excessive visual effects.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian