Anselm Feuerbach: The Banquet of Plato (second version)

by Carina Stegerwald


In 1869, Anselm Feuerbach had painted a first version of Plato's Guest Supper, which we have already looked at in another text and now want to follow up on. This version provoked predominantly negative reactions among Feuerbach's contemporaries, but was bought by a painter directly from the exhibition. After the painting was thus no longer accessible to the public, Feuerbach decided to paint a second one in 1870. In addition to the point of view of returning his main ideological work to the public, he wanted to correct figures and bring about an easier readability of the painting through compositional corrections. In addition, he was concerned to respond to the criticism he had previously received by adding decorative elements and stronger colours to the painting. The role of his younger competitor Hans Makart, whom Feuerbach initially also admired for his overly decorative paintings, seems to have been not unimportant here, but he wanted to surpass him.

Although the two versions of the painting show strong compositional similarities, there are serious differences. Even at first glance, it is obvious that the second version (1871-1874) is much more opulent in its decoration, which in some ways caused the painting to lose clarity and structure. At the same time, however, there was an increase in the monumentality of the figures as well as a unification of the composition. Ultimately, both the architecture and the groups of people are more compactly designed. Basically, the viewer is now more involved in the representation, as the space and the figures come closer to him and the painting also gains concreteness in this way. Further differences can be seen in the modelling of the figures, the staff and the choice of colours.


The scene is framed by a mighty painted gold frame decorated with an egg stick. Richly hung with seemingly plastic garlands of flowers and fruit, butterflies, bucrania, shells, masks and lyres, it continues the painting. The frame is particularly exciting because, on the one hand, part of it protrudes into the actual painting and, on the other hand, objects from the painting overlap the frame or rest on it. This calls into question the demarcation of the inside of the picture and ultimately the logic of the painting. Another important function that the frame assumes is that of structuring.

The second version was exhibited for only two weeks, and the few reviews written in the short time were predominantly positive. The improvement of the colouring and the painted frame were particularly admired. Thus Feuerbach's concessions to the public, while retaining his principles, led to the hoped-for success. Whether the adaptation to the spirit of the times, the public and ultimately also to his competitor Hans Makart was seen as legitimate and even necessary or as self-betrayal was a matter of dispute. In any case, it seems important to distinguish between those changes that were owed to the public (colourfulness, decoration, abandonment of the clear structure) and those that were ideological (repositioning of the persons and additional pictorial levels through the frame).

An interesting component added in the second version is that of Victoria, the goddess of victory, in the wall niche. In the context of Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War at the time, she seems to add a German-national, patriotic note to the painting. Furthermore, Victoria could be interpreted as a reference to the present at the time, i.e. to reality, and thus as a counteracting element to the timelessness that was of central importance in the first version. In order to depict not only the fleetingness of the moment, but the state of duration, Feuerbach chose a strong grey tone at the time. That his pictures were intended to have eternal validity is also shown by his following statement: "But a history picture should represent a life in a situation, it should point forwards and backwards and be based in and on itself for all eternity. Old stories that become new every day!"[1].


So is the second version less timeless because of the more painterly, pompous style and the addition of Zeitgeist? Has it lost its profundity in the end? Or is it possibly precisely in Feuerbach's last sentence "Old stories that become new every day!" that the key to understanding the second version lies? For while contemporaries found it difficult to access the first version, especially because of the colour, the second version at least made it easier for them with the help of the changed external design. After all, Feuerbach himself had cited this idea of simplified readability as one of the reasons for a new version.


In the decades that followed, the positive assessment of the painting changed into the opposite. To this day, many art historians consider the second version not only less timeless, but also less valuable in terms of content and qualitatively weaker. But on the one hand, this discussion is ultimately a matter of personal taste, and on the other hand, it is worth considering whether the second version might even have formulated a new content, such as the aspect of timelessness vs. topicality. Moreover, a new level of meaning could be the possible connection between the framing and the structure of the Platonic dialogue. Plato knew the story around the banquet only through oral reports and made the nested rendition by different persons visible with the help of the subjunctive and indirect speech. Ultimately, the frame with the inside-outside aspect could be seen as a reference to the staggered, somewhat opaque construction of Plato's narrative. On the other hand, Feuerbach gave the second version a kind of monumental character immanent to his work through various quotations referring to his oeuvre - among them Iphigenia, Battle of the Amazons and Resting Nymph. And it was, after all, as a monument that he had planned the painting.


Above all, it is important to consider both paintings in terms of their significance for Feuerbach and the circumstances of his life or his oeuvre. For while the first Gastmahl des Plato is indeed the epitome of the classical phase of the 1860s, the second version concludes that phase and stands for the beginning of the late phase of the 1870s. The fact that Feuerbach's further development can be shown on the basis of two such identical representations should be seen as a stroke of luck.


[1] 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


Anselm Feuerbach: The Banquet of Plato, 2nd version

1871-1874, oil on canvas, 400 x 750 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin