Number 18 in the series. This one mainly by Martin Smith.
As we explained in the last episode, it was our old friend Mario Praz, in his An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration, who put us on to another, perhaps better known, chess picture: Johann Erdmann Hummel’s Schachpartie in the Palais Voss of 1818-19. In fact we first mentioned Herr Hummel (1769-1852) a long time ago, in episode two, when we promised he would return, and here is his chess painting.
Mario (we feel we should now be on first name terms) discourses at some length about Hummel and his picture, and he is worth quoting:
“Some painters delighted in rendering, down to the slightest detail, the effects of light, especially in the evening….. Johann Erdmann Hummel ……specialized in effects of perspective (he was nick-named Perspektiv-Hummel) and optical effects (again the local wits invented a whole nomenclature for him: Kaloptrik, Dioptrik, Antoptrik, Hyperoptrik, Kaldioptrik, and Anthyperoptrik...). He portrayed the mysterious, magical tricks of reflected light with a sensitivity …..In his Chess Game at Count Ingenheim's Home [aka Palais Voss. MS] Hummel has given us a nocturnal atmosphere of great effect, repeating a famous experiment of Raphael's, contrasting artificial light with moonlight.”
For amico Mario it’s the interior décor that got the picture into his book, and the moon-glow shows it up nicely. But not so in the other version created by “Perspektiv-Hummel”, this time with a crescent-moon. Yep, two versions, and where have we seen that before!
In the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, HannoverHere again Hummel shows off his “fondness for light effects” (as Praz puts it in Conversation Pieces, with some understatement), though now the décor disappears in the gloom, and naturally Mario passes over this version in silence in An Illustrated History.
The Neidersächsischen Landesgalerie Museum in Hannover, who have the crescent-moon version, kindly sent us their relevant catalogue entry, albeit in German (Babelfish and The Institute of Leeming Studies have done their best to make sense of it; all misunderstandings are our responsibility). We think it says it depicts a chess club, and so starts an uncanny series of coincidences between the Hummel Schachparties and the Leeming Gents pictures, beginning with the fact of multiple versions (coincidence number 1), dated around 1818/9 (coincidence number 2) which is when Leeming showed the “Greenlees” version at the Royal Academy. As we have not seen a Leeming for some time in this series here is the Hereford version again, complete with dog.
All keen students of the Chess Gents of Hereford will claim that its three versions trump the mere two versions of the Chess Gents of Berlin by Hummel. But, alas, not so fast. As the Berlin Museum has kindly pointed out (to be fair, without any hint of triumphalism) there are four versions of the Schachpartie - the two already mentioned, a third in private ownership, and a drawn sketch also in Berlin - and as they are all definitely by Herr Hummel, Leeming supporters have to retire hurt.
Coincidence number 3 is that both Leeming and Hummel painted precise portraits of their chess circle, including themselves (we have given the full list of German characters in a Note at the end). However, unlike Leeming there is some contention as to which of the figures in Schachpartie is in fact Hummel (assuming we have understood correctly the Catalogue note that Hannover sent us). Hummel, the artist, is either the one at the back by the window, or the loser at the board on the right. But as with Leeming’s effort, the standing figure strikes a slightly awkward note, suggesting it was the artist himself who, logic dictates, could not have been waiting there in situ to be painted. Thus Hummel standing at the back à la Leeming gives us coincidence 4.
There is also a hand over the middle of the board as if playing a move (number 5). The German catalogue says it is giving mate, but we aren’t so sure, especially as the full moon illuminates an empty board (save for a lone king). In the gloom-filled version with the crescent-moon we can only see a position that is, shall we say, “unclear”.
Oh, and, there’s a dog (number 6).
So there is an astonishingly high degree of thematic correspondence between the two sets of paintings, though there is no evidence of collaboration between the artists. It is unlikely that Leeming ever went to Germany, and there’s no mention in the literature that Hummel came to London. But nothing would surprise us anymore, and some kind of influence – perhaps by good report – may have been at work.
We did ask the German galleries if the Hummels has ever been exhibited together, and they weren’t aware that they had. So here they are, side by side, and as with the multiple Leemings you can play “spot the difference” (click-on to enlarge).
Interestingly it is the version on the left, now in Hannover, that is actually the larger of the two at 117cm x 141cm; the Berlin version on the right is much smaller at 38.5 cm x 44 cm. Berlin says there is no record as to which was painted first (coincidence 7 - though on other grounds we are 90% confident Leeming began with the Hereford version).
Hummel, like Leeming, didn’t confine himself to chess pictures, though we’ve found only one portrait miniature (Leeming’s strong suit) by him . Praz’s commentary in his Illustrated History mentions one of Hummel’s pictures featuring in a short story by E.T.A.Hoffman. This is quite an accolade. Usually illustration works in the service of the text, and not the other way round. If you want to try and enjoy Hoffman’s story you’ll find it here, and we wish you the very best of luck.
Praz also mentions another work by Anthyperoptrik-Hummel (whatever that moniker means) which again shows off his skill applied to light and reflections: The Great Cup of Granite in Berlin of 1832.
Quite a tour de force of a painting, and the vessel must have been something to behold too (in fact, you can still see it today). But there is no coincidence here with Leeming: as far as we are aware he didn’t do any over-size bird-baths.
Together with Part 1, our previous episode, this completes our survey of the chess pictures we have encountered along the way in our Leeming research. We have a few further odd and ends to share with you yet, including a further Leeming surprise, next time.
The characters in the Hummel chess circle are: The architect Hans Christian Genelli (with a pipe); archeologist Aloys Hirt ("one of the most beautiful men in Berlin" apparently); Gustav Adolf von Ingenheim (son of King Friedrich Wilhelm II and Countess Voss); painter Friedrich Bury; the artist himself (at the window); Count Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg (son of King Friedrich Wilhelm II and Countess Doenhoff). The Hannover Gallery catalogue suggests that the painting (or one of the versions, anyway) was commissioned by Queen Wilhelmine of Holland who insisted that Count Friedrich was included, even though he wasn’t a chesser.
Leeming wouldn’t have put up with that!
An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau by Mario Praz (Thames & Hudson, 1964 reprinted 1982).
Conversation Pieces: A Survey of the Informal Group Portrait in Europe and America by Mario Praz (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).
With thanks for their assistance to Dr. Bastian Eclercy, Curator of Old Master Paintings, at Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, and Ms Simone Arndt, Intern at the Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.
For more on the "Berlin Soup Bowl", see here
Every Picture Tells a Story index