Johann Gottfried Steffan (Wädenswil, Zürichsee 1815 - 1905 Munich)
Study of Clouds, 1860 or later
Oil on canvas, 26 x 35.5 cm
Bearing the estate stamp on the verso J.G. Steffan München
The landscape painter Johann Gottfried Steffan left a very large body of work, numbering some five hundred finished paintings. Most of these are depictions of the topography of the Alpine region and the high mountains of the Alps.1 However, his studies were not publicly shown until after his death in 1906, when they achieved long-overdue recognition. Most of them were quickly purchased by collectors.
The somewhat amorphous topography of the present painting is not the central focus of the composition. Rather, the emphasis is on the rapidly reconfiguring banks of cloud in the evening sky. This occupies a good two thirds of the picture plane. Unlike Steffan's studio paintings, this study concentrates on capturing a momentary mood and the interplay of light and colour. He very rarely worked up his plein-air studies into finished paintings or used them as direct models. His later studies are characterized by heavier, more coherent brushwork and a greater use of impasto than his studies of the 1840s and 1850s. These employ a lighter palette and paints are applied in delicate, transparent brushstrokes.
Steffan completed his studies as a lithographer in his home town of Wädenswil. He moved to Munich in 1833 to study painting at the Academy. At the time, Carl Rottmann was working on a cycle of frescoes of Italian landscapes in the arcades of the Hofgarten. The cycle was to have a formative influence on Steffan's stylistic development. From 1840 onwards, he was to concentrate on landscapes. He travelled to northern Italy in 1845 and was in Paris in 1855. He went on frequent study trips and was a regular visitor to Switzerland. Here, he was particularly attracted by the contrasting scenery of lakes and mountains in conjunction with the rapidly changing effects of light in the landscape.
Although Steffan was greatly influenced by the work of Carl Rottmann in his early career, he went on to absorb elements of prevailing trends in late-Romantic naturalism. These trends were more dominant in Swiss artistic circles and painters associated with Alexandre Calame than in Munich. This form of naturalism was largely generated by a widespread public enthusiasm for the picturesque qualities of Alpine scenery. Profiting from this, Steffan's finished Alpine paintings were in great demand among private collectors and museums alike. However, the small-format plein-air oil studies with their fresh, natural palette and vibrant atmospheric qualities make them far more desirable to today's collectors than his studio paintings.2
1. Steffan compiled a hand-written catalogue of his works, listing his studies, most of which remained unsigned and undated. This catalogue formed the basis of the catalogue raisonné published in 2009. See Eva Sandor-Schneebeli, Johann Gottfried Steffan. Landschaftsmaler 1815-1905, Wädenswil 2009, p.190ff.
2. Biographical notes based on Christoph Heilmann in Frieder Hepp, et al. (eds.), Natur als Kunst, Heidelberg 2007, p.188.