Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions by Theodor von Holst, early 19th century. Oil on canvas.
This week I’m going for a personal favourite at the museum. I’ve been watching the repeats of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Art of the Gothic, and so this is the natural choice. Theodor von Holst (1810-1844) was Gustav Holst’s great-uncle. He was the brother of Gustavus von Holst, the first Holst to live in Cheltenham. While many Holsts followed the family music tradition, Theodor’s artistic talent was recognised early, with Sir Thomas Lawrence buying drawings from him when Theodor was only 10. He attended the Royal Academy Schools, and was favourite pupil of the master of the Gothic – Henry Fuseli, whose painting The Nightmare is possibly the most famous Gothic-style painting in Britain. Von Holst was much influenced by Fuseli, and like him was inspired by literary themes such as Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe – and, in this painting, an author of which you may not have heard: Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué.
Fouqué was a Prussian army officer, but in his day he was well known as a writer of fantastical romances. Although little known today, he influenced Victorian fantasy writers like George McDonald and William Morris, who in turn influenced writers like J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. By far the most popular of his works was Undine, the tale of the eponymous water-sprite, who wishes to gain an immortal soul by marrying a mortal. She chooses Huldbrand, out in the forest fulfilling a quest to Bertalda, the foster child of a Duke. A tangled web of crossed lovers and secrets then ensues – Huldbrand marries Undine, Bertalda turns out to be just a fisherman’s child, Undine is snatched away, Huldbrand turns back to Bertalda… In true Gothic fashion, Undine and Huldbrand are united only in death.
Von Holst depicts a moment when Bertalda is tormented by apparitions sent by Undine’s uncle Kühleborn. In her terror at all the spirits around her Bertalda appears to be having a wardrobe malfunction… There is often something sexually threatening about Gothic art, and von Holst is being deliberately titillating. But his art was slightly out of step with fashion – the late 18th and early 19th century desire for the darkest Gothic had ebbed away by the 1830s, and von Holst began to paint imaginary portraits of beautiful young girls, inspired by Renaissance art and by the German Nazerenes. He died very young, only 33.
Why do I like it?
I’ve always loved this kind of art! As a teenager I was heavily into the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Rossetti. Rossetti loved von Holst’s work: The Wish, owned by Lord Northwick and displayed at Thirlestane House here in Cheltenham, inspired Rossetti’s first published poem, and his themes and paintings inspired Rossetti’s art and his famous paintings of ‘stunners’. It’s no surprise I should like someone Rossetti was inspired by! More than that, though, I love that this tells a story. Even if von Holst was a little out of step with the rapidly changing times in 19th century Britain, many of his audience would have been familiar with the tale and would have been able to tell the story in their heads when they saw the painting – just like if we saw a painting taken from a fairy tale or Shakespeare, or, more up-to-date, from something like Game of Thrones.
Theodor Matthias von Holst: Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/bertalda-frightened-by-apparitions-61849