Wilhelm son

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Image detail from the painting Summer Night on the Rhine by Christian Eduard Böttcher : The person pictured could be Wilhelm's son or his father Heinrich Karl.
Wilhelm Sohn as a young man, painting by Karl Ferdinand Sohn , 1858, last shown in the show Children's portraits from three centuries, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries at the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, 1937
Wilhelm Sohn, painted by Otto Sohn-Rethel in 1893

Johann August Wilhelm Sohn (born August 29, 1829 in Berlin , † March 16, 1899 in Pützchen near Bonn ) was a German painter from the Düsseldorf School .


Study for the painting The Last Supper , 1891

He went to Düsseldorf in 1847 and received his education from Rudolf Wiegmann , Theodor Hildebrandt , Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow and his uncle Karl Ferdinand Sohn , which he supplemented with trips.

In the spirit of the painting school, he first painted religious history pictures, such as the great Christ on the stormy sea , which neither in the dull brown color nor in the conventional expression of the figures suggested its later development in the slightest. Some other pictures of a similar nature, e.g. B. an unfinished Bonifacius , followed, until the study of the Dutch minor masters brought about a sudden change with which he turned to genre painting.

On August 23, 1861, Wilhelm son married the daughter of his uncle Karl Ferdinand son, Sophie Emilie son (1837–1885), called Emmy; so the uncle also became the father-in-law.

In turning away from the idealizing and unrealistic histories of the Schadow Circle, a strong tendency towards realistic, everyday painting developed during the pre- March period of the revolution of 1848 . But it was only after Schadow's abdication in 1859 that the subject “genre” could be set up at the Düsseldorf Art Academy under the direction of Wilhelm Sohn . A series of epoch-making coloristic pictures came from the time: The question of conscience in 1864, The various paths of life and above all his main picture The consultation with the lawyer in 1866. In 1874 Wilhelm Sohn was appointed the first professor of genre painting at the Düsseldorf Academy.

As a result of the commotion that his paintings made, he was commissioned to paint a large picture for the Prussian National Gallery , the Lord's Supper for a Protestant patrician family. But at that time, Son was already so busy with his teaching that he lacked not both the time and the artistic concentration to complete the large-scale picture.

It was the heyday of genre painting and the essence of the so-called Sohn school was famous for the precision of the costume painting, the color mood and the physiognomic expression. His teaching activities and his influence go back to much earlier times, just as the professorship was offered to him in 1867 after the death of his maternal uncle. In addition to his academic classes for portrait and genre painting and a master class , he also ran a heavily attended ladies' school.

Son was not content to take costumes from old pictures and put them around his figures, but he studied the whole milieu of the old days and with a conscientiousness, no piece of clothing, no furniture, no carpet was allowed to fall out of the overall picture in terms of costume history, and how Lawrence Alma-Tadema had created archaeologically exact images for certain periods of ancient life, the best pictures of the Sons School are faithful reproductions of a particular epoch of the Dutch Renaissance. More important than this study of cultural history was the care he paid to the coloristic mood. Here the peak of that colorism was reached which had gradually developed since the time of the older genre painters. The effect of the different colors on each other was raised to a formal study, which was brought to the greatest possible perfection by means of experiments. The picture was no longer the result of a purely artistic, intuitive joy of color, but the precipitate and extract of a series of attempts, sometimes continued over the years, through color, detail and overall sketches, in which the elements were sometimes combined into a dozen pictures. But this way of working was too very individual, and it required both iron, tireless patience and constant renunciation of what was found, which was always sacrificed to someone who was sometimes only supposedly better, than it required many voluntary and original followers in the long run could have found.

The importance of Wilhelm Sohn as a colourist and his position among his contemporaries are probably unique in modern art history. Without having completed more than a few pictures himself, there is hardly a single picture that was created in Düsseldorf in a certain period of time. In a certain sense, he was predestined to be an advisor and his own work suffered so much that he had produced almost nothing for the last 25 years of his life. But it was by no means an exaggeration when he himself occasionally said that he did not, like the others, have to work on one picture, but on a whole dozen.

He painted the “Last Supper” for 30 years on the commissioned work, partly in his studio in the “ Wunderbau ” on Pempelforter Strasse, but it remained unfinished. In 1885, his wife Emmy died of a stroke while they were taking an evening walk together. Eduard von Gebhardt , Wilhelm Sohn's best friend, former student and also neighbor, made a picture of the deceased, who was lying in the apartment at Rosenstrasse 43 as if asleep. Wilhelm Sohn fell ill with a brain disease which finally paralyzed his strength completely, and he was taken to the Pützchen sanatorium (near Bonn), where he died in 1899. In 1895, Claus-Meyer Sohn succeeded the academy .


The main reason for his artistic activity and teaching, which he described as peculiar, was probably based on a special receptivity and enormous comprehension. These qualities enabled Son to take in everything that he found in the older masters and also that new fashions or directions that arose in Munich or Paris at that time, to recognize the best of it and to process it for his purposes. His often vaunted memory captured all of these things and over the years became a kind of compendium of everything that had ever been achieved in coloristic painting . This knowledge and his heightened sense of color allowed Sohn to recognize with absolute certainty and to decide what had to be used in any picture at any point for a color or tone in order to achieve that dazzling, colorful and at the same time harmonious effect for which one was then Invented the name "Bouquet". And so it happened that soon no picture at all was completed within the circle of young painters whose coloristic solutions Son had not given or to which he had not advised and, as it were, given the placet through his advice.

His reputation had spread early, even at a time when Son had not yet discovered his talent for coloring himself. Strangely enough, it was a box of a Barbarossa in Kyffhäuser who made him famous and who brought him his first pupils, above all Albert Baur . Sohn's entry into the academy seemed to mark the beginning of a new era. The great and lasting upswing that the academy actually took very soon is not due to Son alone, because the activity of Sohn, which in the beginning was genre painting at the Düsseldorf School of Painting, a significant advance and a number of new points of view, training Thanks to some really important artists, it soon became very one-sided. The more son knew, the more confidently he knew how to translate the principles of the old masters into visual effects, the more famous the pictures in his school became, the more dependent his students had to become. One began to attach too much importance to the external appearance, to get stuck with them. And just as history had become the genre picture, the genre picture gradually became, so to speak, a still life, a still life with an ever decreasing intellect. What could be learned was learned and painted.

Interiors and costumes, cultural history and sound effects, but what Sohn's highest artistic achievements were, the knowledge of the closed coloristic visual effect and the reproduction of the mental expression, both of which demand a really outstanding artistic individuality, that really only worked to this high degree only one of the son's students about or was further developed by him. This pupil, Eduard von Gebhardt, was later to occupy his special position in the development of Düsseldorf art. But some of the later pupils got stuck in the things mentioned, which are ultimately only externalities.


Jesus and the disciples on a stormy sea , 1853
The consultation with the lawyer , 1866
  • Barbarossa in magic sleep (Barbarossa im Kyffhäuser), 1850, whereabouts unknown
  • The death of Abel , drawing, 1851, in the Schadow album.
  • Jesus and the disciples on a stormy sea , 1853, Museum Kunstpalast , Düsseldorf. At the age of 23, his son made his debut with this large history picture, depicting Jesus asleep among his disciples.
  • Christ on the Mount of Olives , 1855, altarpiece in the Friedenskirche zu Jauer in Silesia. The selected sketch was exhibited at Schulte beforehand .
  • Genoveva , 1856
  • Young beggar woman , 1860, Dresden State Art Collections, New Masters Picture Gallery
  • Half-length portrait of a young lady , 1860
  • Different life paths
  • Question of conscience , 1864, Karlsruhe Gallery
  • The consultation with the lawyer , 1866, Museum in Leipzig. Wilhelm Wolfsohn wrote about this picture in 1866: “In addition to the paintings that I highlighted at the time, a 'Consultalion with the Advocate' by Wilhelm Sohn, in the style of the 17th century, captivates the attention. The characters are of great, moving truth: an old lady who asks a lawyer for an inheritance matter, but does not get what she wants. The context in which a young, black-clad girl with a lovely shy face, seated in the foreground, stands with the group of the two old people remains uncertain. The fine, careful treatment is reminiscent of the best Dutch; Even if the artist has not yet achieved complete freedom and mastery of the technique, an extraordinary talent is revealed in the composition, the expression of the faces, the painting style. "
  • In the salon
  • Young woman at the window
  • Girl at the Spinning Wheel , 1880
  • Oriental street scene with mosque, minaret and traders on a forecourt , 1885
  • Sacrament celebration
  • The Last Supper , 1874/1895, National Museums in Berlin, National Gallery

Student (selection)


Web links

Commons : Wilhelm Sohn  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Wilhelm Sohn. Biographical data and works in the Netherlands Institute for Art History (Dutch)
  2. ^ Address book of the mayor's office in Düsseldorf 1889, Wilhelm Sohn, Rosenstrasse 43
  3. ^ Architecture (building): Sanatorium Pützchen, Bonn-Beuel, Pützchen-Chaussee 133-135 , on German digital library
  4. Wilhelm Sohn: The Death of Abel , Schadow-Album (No. 28)
  5. The sketch by the historical painter Wilhelm Sohn for an altarpiece for the Protestant Church in Jauer in Silesia, depicting: Christ on the Oelberg (...) will be on display at the permanent art exhibition of Mr. Schulte until Sunday the 7th of the month Düsseldorf the 3rd. January 1855. In: Düsseldorfer Journal and Kreisblatt. No. 3, January 4, 1855 ( digital.ub.uni-duesseldorf.de ).
  6. Image: Young beggar woman
  7. Image: The Last Supper