Art / Architecture / Museums

Museum Mondays: Kobell’s Siege of Cosel, a study in breaths of gray

My husband and I recently returned from Europe, so while much of Museum Mondays will cover D.C. museums, be prepared for a more international approach over the next several weeks. 🙂

I want to talk today about a painter I’d never heard of: Wilhelm von Kobell who lived from 1766-1853. His masterpiece, The Siege of Cosel, which was painted around 1808 is like a woman covered in veils. Gossamer layers of gray, recede ever fainter as he paints the foggy battle scene. Textbooks do not show this well. Even though the painting is massive — larger than a wall in most homes — these figures are sometimes as small as the head of a pin, only visible less than a foot away from the canvas. Seeing them makes the average museum guard nervous as you move scant inches from the canvas.

Full painting of the Siege of Cosel by Wilhelm von Kobell 1808.
Full painting of the Siege of Cosel by Wilhelm von Kobell 1808.

Cosel, also known as Kozle, in Poland, was under siege many times during the 18th and early 19th century. This painting, at the Neue Pinakothek (New Painting Gallery) in Munich was painted around 1808, so it might refer to the siege in 1807. Cosel painted mostly battle scenes, but there isn’t much else about him online. Yet, the mastery of his strokes makes this piece a breathtaking addition to any collection.

Frankly, had a woman not been staring transfixed, I might have missed the nuances. My curiosity about her interest paid off when I took the time to breathe, stop, and fully enjoy this work. When you’re touring, it’s hard to remember to take time and that seeing well is better than seeing everything.

The image above is a good reproduction of the colors as I remember them. It is about 80 inches high and 120 inches wide (six and a half feet tall by ten feet wide). In other words, HUGE. But again, until you get up close, and take some time, you won’t see the details.

What do you see in the painting above and the detail shots below? This would make a great game with your spouse or child.

Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase
Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase

This one (above) is easy: the city in the distance. But look right over the soldier’s on the left’s head — do you see smoke?

Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase
Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase

In the smoke are soldiers, some on horseback. Guns rest on shoulders. Canon is dragged into the field of battle. The shades of gray are infinite — smoke, men, armaments, each fainter and fainter as they fall into the distance. Even more remarkable, there is a pond reflecting the soldiers and the smoke, beneath the misty atmosphere of the day.

Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase
Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase

This is easier, see the little dog at the feet of the horses? She is pampered and well groomed and obviously used to camp life and battle. Look closer, see the tracks of the horses, the footsteps of people in the sandy dirt? Then between the legs of the horse at the top. The heads of men wearing tall headgear, their rifles glinting with sun, are visible.

Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase
Detail Siege of Cosel (c) Diana Belchase

How many shades of monochrome are here? These men in their uniforms, white vest and trousers, dark coats, guns blasting, the trees, the houses, are all there. Some of these figures are roughly the size of the head of a pin.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of crazing on the canvas. If not attended to, paint will eventually flake off the surface and the enjoyment of the work is marred by the distracting cracks. The Neue Pinakothek was plagued by this problem on perhaps 80% of its collection. When I asked about this at the information desk, administrators were hugely surprised as if they were unaware of the condition issues. I hope they attend to these problems soon in an otherwise excellently curated and lovely museum.

I hope you enjoyed today’s Museum Monday virtual visit to the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. While many museums worldwide are closed on Mondays, hopefully you’ve got your art fix here at Top Secret Washington, today!

4 replies »

  1. What a lovely, complex painting. As you pointed out, the layers of fog & depths hidden within are amazing! Thank you for sharing this lesser-known master of the art.

    • What eyesight he must have had to both see this in the mist and fog of battle and to recreate it later. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  2. What a great reward for taking the time to stop and look closer! It’s almost like reading a book that had been made into a movie based on the book, since the book covers the story in more detail. Do you remember the art museum scene in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off? We see Cameron staring at a painting and seeing it down to the individual brush strokes in a little girl’s face… It’s more a study of Cameron than it is of the painting. Last time I got that close to paintings that would make a guard nervous was when Picasso was on exhibit at the Emirates’ Palace, Abu Dhabi, UAE, ten years ago. It was thrilling to think that as a lone visitor in the gallery at that moment, I was standing inches away from famous paintings that would have had NYC crowds 5 deep and cordoned six feet back. I kept my hands firmly locked behind my back as I leaned in for a privileged view of the artist’s best known works. Unforgettable.

    • Seeing the strokes is like seeing how an artist thinks. You can imagine his or her hands creating the image. So glad to have your insights!

Leave a Reply to Diana Belchase Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.