Designs for a triptych with scenes from the Song of the Nibelungs

ca. 1817/18

Pencil, pen and brush in grey, washed, squared in pencil on ribbed hand-made paper (watermark: PM und lily)
Inv. No. 212

38.4 × 47.7 cm

zur  Biographie

Carl Philipp Fohr stands out among the artists of his generation for both the talent and the independence he reveals in his drawings. Precise observation and an individual, subjective way of seeing things are the defining qualities of his many studies of nature and depictions of southern landscapes, but also of his portraits and interpretations of literary sources.


The central section of his design for a Nibelung triptych shows Kriemhild taking her leave of Siegfried’s dead body. The left-hand section portrays the murder of the hero, and the one on the right has Dietrich von Bern bringing the bound figure of the murderer, Hagen, before the enthroned Kriemhild. Her silent mourning for her beloved Siegfried is thus flanked by the cunning and malice that went before and the lust for revenge that followed. Fohr has placed the scenes behind a pseudo architectural framework reminiscent of the Gothic tracery on Venetian palazzi which he may have seen in 1815. A student at the time, he travelled from Munich to Venice, following in Dürer’s footsteps. The openness of this construction creates a cautious separation between the different narrative moments, and its decorativeness emphasizes the poetic and fairy-tale manner in which Fohr stages them.


Against the background of the struggle against Napoleon in the 1813–1815 Wars of Liberation, the subject matter of the Nibelungenlied – which had come to light in Hohenems in 1755 – was taken up with enthusiasm by patriotically minded young people. It was around this time that the artist, likewise a member of the younger generation, heard about early German poetic works such as the Nibelungenlied from his mentor, the Darmstadt historian Philipp Dieffenbach. Fohr and his fellow students in Heidelberg later read the heroic German epic, but it was only in Rome, far from his native land, that this interest found expression in his art. When he arrived in Rome in 1816 he met Peter Cornelius, who was working on a number of large drawings illustrating the Nibelungenlied and destined to appear as a series of engravings in 1817, a year after the Faust cycle. The architectural framing on the title page, the Old German manner of employing line – derived from Dürer’s engravings – and the pathos found in the work of the Nazarene Cornelius are very different from the younger artist’s Romantic approach, his drawing style and the spontaneous-looking wash which incorporates figures into space in the manner of a painting.


The sudden, premature death of Carl Philipp Fohr, who drowned in the Tiber in the summer of 1818, left various projects uncompleted. While his sketches for a group portrait of the German artists in the Café Greco were made in preparation for a planned engraving, one can only speculate on the purpose of the Nibelung triptych. The division of the paper into ruled squares suggests that it was ultimately intended for a work of far greater size: a painting, a banner or even a mural.

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