Anselm Feuerbach: The Banquet of Plato (first version)

by Carina Stegerwald


"What is it that makes him still worth investigating in the face of a rich literature and its interpretations?"[1] This is the question Ekkehard Mai asks himself in his monograph on Anselm Feuerbach, published in 2017, and indeed it is fascinating why so many people are almost magically drawn to Feuerbach's paintings to this day. Do you feel the same way and have you ever wondered why?


One reason may be that Feuerbach united the contradictions of his time like few others. It was above all the image of the tragic artist that shaped him. An artist in whom person and work are directly linked.


Because of the close link between Feuerbach's works and his personality, we will first take a look at his biography. Born in 1829 into a family blessed with highly gifted children, Feuerbach moved to Düsseldorf at the age of 15 and without a school-leaving certificate to study at the Academy of Arts. Soon, however, he did not like it there - he was criticised by his teacher and therefore criticised him - so he soon moved to Munich. Here, the recurring behavioural pattern of euphorically setting out for something new as soon as he had experienced criticism and saw no progress in himself was already apparent. Feuerbach could certainly be described as a difficult, ambivalent character who was convinced of himself and his talent and always expected praise. If this did not happen, he was offended.

Further stations in his life were Munich, Antwerp, Paris, Venice and finally Rome, which he called his second home and where he ultimately developed his own style. Although his years in Rome are considered his main creative period, Feuerbach suffered repeatedly from poverty due to a lack of commissions and also from great loneliness. In addition, he withdrew more and more into the role of the misunderstood, misunderstood genius. In 1873 Feuerbach moved to Vienna, where he accepted a professorship as a history painter at the Academy of Arts. There he was in direct competition with the younger, successful artist Hans Makart. In 1880 Feuerbach died unexpectedly of heart failure. With this knowledge of Feuerbach's life, we now look at the first version of Plato's Guest Supper.


The painting already refers in its title to the literary source of the depiction, which is one of those dialogues in which the Greek philosopher Plato points out the teaching methods and opinions of his teacher Socrates. Specifically, it is about the young tragedian inviting Agathon to his house to celebrate his victory in a writing competition. He and his friends each give a speech about the god Eros during the course of the evening. At the moment when Socrates is speaking about its nature, the successful general Alcibiades appears with his entourage. His contribution to the discussion is a praise of Socrates, equating him with the god of love.


Feuerbach chose the most dramaturgically substantial moment for his painting: the arrival of Alcibiades with a crowd of bacchantes. Only sparsely wrapped in pastel-coloured fabrics, the five women and men as well as two putti carry vines on their heads and torches in their hands. Thus they move into the room making music and dancing. In contrast to the gaiety and movement of the group of Bacchants on the left are the calm and serenity of the philosophers on the right side of the painting. Seated on benches around an oblong table, the predominantly older men seem completely absorbed in their conversation, so that they hardly seem to notice the noisy arrivals. Between the two groups, prominently positioned in the middle of the painting, the upright Agathon extends his right hand in greeting to his guests. His victory in the previous competition - and thus the occasion of the banquet - is indicated by the laurel crown tucked into his hair.


As described by Plato, the scene with the meeting of Alcibiades and the philosophers takes place in the house of Agathon, which is indicated in the background of the painting by a richly painted wall. The described division of the characters into three parts is also evident in the architecture and is also reinforced by the design of the floor, whose pattern emphasises the central perspective and separates the individual actors from one another. The two-part nature of the content is also interesting. More precisely, Feuerbach depicted two polarities on the two sides of the painting. While the left side stands for movement, abundance and lived life, the right side is to be seen as the embodiment of calm, barrenness and thought life. Thus Alcibiades and his entourage symbolise the Dionysian and the group of philosophers the Apollonian. In Feuerbach's banquet, the two extremes are united in the figure of the centrally positioned Agathon. He can thus be identified as the personification of tolerance.


Finally, the painting's colouring is also extremely important, as the cool, stony-looking grey hue was very unusual at the time and provoked much criticism. Contemporaries, who were accustomed to "a false old-masterly golden-brownish colourfulness, the so-called gallery tone"[2], suffered almost a shock at the sight of the painting in muted cool colours and reacted with incomprehension: "The Banquet is a true monstrosity, which is unanimously condemned [...] as an aberration by the representatives of all art movements"[3]. Although the work was bought directly from the exhibition by a female painter, Feuerbach was deeply hurt after the devastating assessment of his work and retreated more than ever into the position of the misunderstood genius. Feuerbach chose a different solution for a second version of the painting.


[1] May 2017, p. 13.

[2] Ahlers-Hestermann [1944], p. 6.

[3] Leitmeyer 2002, p. 25.


Bibliography:

Ahlers-Hestermann, Friedrich: Anselm Feuerbach. The Banquet of Plato. The Art Letter. Vol. 16. Berlin [1944].

Arndt, Maria Benedicta: The Drawings of Anselm Feuerbach. Studies on the development of images. Bonn 1968.

Ecker, Jürgen: Anselm Feuerbach. Life and Work. Critical catalogue of paintings, oil sketches and oil studies. Munich 1991.

Ecker, Jürgen: Poesie und Vernunft. In: Leitmeyer, Wolfgang: Anselm Feuerbach. Exhibition catalogue. Ostfildern-Ruit 2002, pp. 31-56.

Keisch, Claude: Around Anselm Feuerbach's Banquet. Exhibition catalogue. Berlin 1992.

Lehmann, Doris: History Painting in Vienna. Anselm Feuerbach und Hans Makart im Spiegel zeitgenössischer Kritik. Cologne (et al.) 2011.

Leitmeyer, Wolfgang: Anselm Feuerbach. Exhibition catalogue. Ostfildern-Ruit 2002.

Mai, Ekkehard: Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880). A life of the century. Cologne; Weimar; Vienna 2017.


Anselm Feuerbach - The Banquet of Plato, 1st version

1869, oil on canvas, 295 x 598 cm, Kunsthalle Karlsruhe