Leopold Pollak (Lodenitz 1806 – 1880 Rome)

Roman Peasant Family

Oil on canvas, unlined – 45 1/16 x 38 inches, 114.5 x 99 cm

Signed and dated lower left: L.Pollak, Roma, 1836

Provenance:

  • Private Collection, Germany.

This charming genre picture of a peasant family in Rome was painted in 1836 by the Czech-born artist Leopold Pollak. Born in Lodenitz on the 8th November 1806, the son of a prosperous Jewish merchant, Pollak showed an early talent for painting. In 1819, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he studied for five years under the Director of the Academy Joseph Bergler. He continued his studies in Vienna with Johann Peter Krafft. Sponsored by his parents, he then moved to Rome in 1831 to complete his artistic education, studying under the painter Leopold Schutz. From 1832 he joined the circle of German-speaking artists in Rome and was a founder member of the Deutscher Kunstler Verein (Federation of German artists). These links found expression in a series of fourteeen portrait drawings of fellow artists which he executed for the Deutsche Kunstlerbuch (an album of portraits of German artists), which included a portrait of Winterhalter. The major early influence on his career was the German artist August Riedel whom he met in Rome and whose portrait by Pollak is now in Munich. Pollak emulated both the subject matter and the style of Riedel whose beautifully lit and well crafted genre paintings of elegant peasant families wearing traditional costume were a major source of inspiration. He was probably also influenced by the picturesque genre paintings of Roman and Neapolitan peasants wearing colourful costumes popularised by the French émigré artist Leopold Robert.

During his first eight years in Rome, Pollak enjoyed very little commercial success, despite his hard work and the recognition and encouragement of his friends and fellow artists. The turning point in his career came in the late 1830s, when one of his paintings, Il Pastorello, was sold to a lady who had been taken to his studio by his friends. In 1841, he returned for a short period to Prague to finish the La Graziosa (“The shepherdess with a lamb”). In 1846, he visited Vienna but soon returned to Italy, where he obtained Roman citizenship in 1853. During all these years, he continued to send his paintings to exhibitions in Prague and he also returned occasionally to Bohemia. In 1855, he spent some time in Carlsbad and in 1873 in Marienbad, the two famous spas of West Bohemia.

Despite the early neglect of his work, Pollak’s reputation started to soar during the 1840s when his sweetly painted genre paintings became much sought after and were represented in some of the most illustrious aristocratic and royal collections. An Italian Girl with Child, undated but painted in Rome and very similar in style to the present picture, was, for example, in the German imperial collections until its sale in 1920[1], while a Neapolitan coastal scene, The Mother’s Welcome, comparable in style and subject matter, was in the famous Scottish collection of the Duke of Sunderland at Trentham Hall.[2] The Sunderland picture was sufficiently celebrated to have been engraved. Another Italian genre painting by Pollak, Shepherd’s Family, which was painted a year earlier (1835) than our picture is the collection of the Hamburg Kunsthalle.[3] During his later career, Pollak painted pictures of genre subjects which are more obviously Germanic in their subject matter and Biedermeier in taste, such as Der Kleine Schuasteller (1877), formerly in the State Gallery of Zlin, Czech Republic. But it is his Roman and Neapolitan paintings of the 1830s such as the present work, suffused with a warm Italian light and painted during his early years before he won popular recognition, for which he is best known today.

Leopold Pollak had two sons, one of whom, August (b. 1838), also became a painter. His other son Enrico, who was a merchant, gave the self-portrait of his father of 1857 to the Uffizi Gallery in 1908, where can be found in the famous collection of artists’ self-portraits.

This Bohemian painter, son of a well-off Jewish merchant, soon showed his talent for painting. In 1819,
he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he studied for 5 years in the class of director
Bergler. Then he continued his studies in Vienna with Krafft and Peter. When he returned to Prague,
the quality of his paintings convinced his parents to supply him with money so that he can go to study
in Rome (shortly going round to Munich). In 1831, after taking part in an exhibition in Prague with the
portrait of his parents, the painter went to Rome with his friend, Schaller, where in the beginning did
not have any success. During the first eight years in Rome, he could not sell any of his paintings, in
spite of the constant work and the recognition and encouragement of his friends and other artists
(including the director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris). It was only when a lady, who went to see
his atelier with his friends, bought one of his paintings, “Il Pastorello”, that happened a turning point in
Pollak’s career. In 1841, he returned for a short period to Prague to finish the “Graziosa” (“The
shepherdess with lamb”). In 1846, he visited Vienna but soon returned to Italy, where he obtained
Roman citizenship in 1853. During all these years, he continued to send his paintings to exhibitions
in Prague and he also returned occasionally to Bohemia. In 1855, he spent some time in Carlsbad
and in 1873 in Marienbad, the two famous spas of West Bohemia.

Leopold Pollak had two sons: August, born in 1838, became also a painter, Enrico (Heinrich), born around 1854, was a merchant and represented the business of his father in Vienna, during the life of this one and even after. In 1908, he gave the self-portrait of his father to the Uffizi Gallery, where can be also found the correspondence from the period of 1926-1931 between the direction of the Uffizi Gallery and the Ministry of Education, concerning the possible exhibition of painting.

 


[1] Wilhelm II Sale, Fleischeimer, Stuttgart, 26/27 Octoober 1920, lot 159.

 

[2] Present whereabouts unknown. Engraved by A.W Wildblood.

 

[3] Inv. No. 3323. This painting was included in the exhibition Artisti austriaci a Roma dal Barocco alla Secessione, Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi, Rome, 1972, no. 290. This catalogue provides the source of most of our information about Pollack.