Philipp Otto Runge - The Hülsenbek Children

by Alexandra Tuschka


The three offspring of the Hülsenbeck family can be seen in front of a white fence parallel to the picture: Three-year-old Friedrich in a red star dress has been placed in a carriage. His chubby face and the bacon-faced little arms speak for his awkwardness in this situation. With his right hand he has bent over a leaf of the sunflower. Now his gaze meets us directly and with childlike curiosity. Present in the middle is the five-year-old August, in green, who is lashing out. In this movement he seems to pause. The viewer seems to have caught his attention. The eldest, Maria, on the other hand, turns back and extends her hand in a caring manner.


The children's plump vitality is reinforced by their size and position close to the picture's border. The viewer's perspective is also unusual, as we find ourselves at the children's eye level. As a romantic, Runge understood how to express the soulfulness of a child in a more playful way than his contemporaries - who usually depicted children as small adults.

We are in the garden of the Hülsenbecker country house, which can be seen in the right background. "Everything should be a portrait" said Runge and describes in a letter on October 16 to his brother Karl, that in the background also the city view is a portrait of Hamburg. To be seen, behind buildings, fields and farmsteads, from right to left, are the towers of St. Nicolai, St. Petri and St. Jacobi.


Symbolically, this image is often read as the consciousness of man. The movement of the youngest can thus coincide with the becoming conscious of the outer world. He is still completely independent and is looking for a foothold. In this context the plant on the left may function as paradisiacal origin. The middle one is in childlike activity and is completely present, while the oldest one already looks around. This interpretation can be strengthened by the light guidance.


Philipp Otto Runge - The Hülsenbek Children

Oil on canvas, c. 1806, 131.5 x 143.5 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg