Johann Adam Klein

H. W. Fichter Kunsthandel e.K
Jun 20, 2018 3:06PM

an artist sketching life in all his facets.

Johann Adam Klein
Title page of Zeh's edition "Radirungen von J. A. Klein" (Etchings by J. A. Klein), 1844
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Overview of the life of Johann Adam Klein

The art of Johann Adam Klein was always associated with realism. Not least the school of Ambrosius Gabler inspired him to intensive studies of nature and the lifelike depiction of the chosen motifs. Since early times, he has been particularly fascinated by animal studies and native landscapes. On his travels he also got to know other regions and especially loved the Swiss mountains. He developed a fascination for regional costumes, but also uniforms, which he captured in detailed drawings and watercolours. He liked to combine people in typical regional costumes with striking topographical landmarks and thus strengthened the local connection. Especially the turbulent times of the Napoleonic Wars gave him the opportunity to depict various uniforms and soldierly genre depictions, which he handled hardly differently from studies of the life of the country people. Nature and the direct experience of walking and hiking animated him to realistic vedutas, in which the presence of animals is rarely absent. Initially oriented towards Dutch animal and genre painting by Karel Dujardin and Paulus Potter as well as the local fauna, Klein also liked to sketch exotic animals that he could marvel at in zoos and travelling menageries.

During the first three decades of his life Klein collected a large stock of drawings, sketches and watercolours, which he later used as models for paintings or etchings. Johann Adam Klein's graphic works are particularly impressive for their diversity and richness. In his autobiography alone, he proudly mentions 302 etched plates that he had produced for renowned art dealers and publishers. When he wrote his biography in 1833, Klein was at the height of his career, the young family grew, there was no lack of clients or ideas for new works and the artist's health was unshaken. It therefore seems almost tragic that he concludes his biography with the words: “Perhaps, with God's help, I am in the future once again of a mind to deliver a sequel.“ Although it was still 42 years before his death in 1875, this second life was less blessed with success and health. Johann Adam Klein no longer wrote a continuing autobiography.

Johann Adam Klein
Polish: Bear from van Akens Menagerie, 1844
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How it all began

Not least through his autobiography, which Johann Adam Klein wrote at the age of 41, the life stations of the artist from Nürnberg are easy to grasp. Together with the conscientiously described drawings of his travels and portraits of his travel companions, a detailed picture of the artist's life can be captured. Johann Adam Klein was born on 25 November 1792 in Nürnberg into the family of the wine merchant of the same name. In the family dedicated to trade and handicrafts, he would not have found a natural contact with art at first. Nevertheless, the artistic talent of the boy, who was carefully encouraged by his understanding father, was already evident at a young age. At the age of eight Klein was taught by Georg Christoph Gottlieb von Bemmel (1738-1794), the scion of a great Nürnberg dynasty of artists. Two years later he entered the drawing school in Nürnberg. Christoph Johann Sigmund Zwinger (1744-1809/13) taught practical drawing in particular, which was intended to prepare people for work in the arts and crafts. The training method followed the long outdated guidelines of the textbooks of Johann Daniel Preißler (1666-1737), in which the composition of landscapes or figures was standardized according to strict rules. The practice of copying to well-known artists also left little room for creative development. According to Klein, it was above all the depictions of animals and hunting by Johann Elias Ridinger (1698-1767), which delighted him. At this point already the enthusiasm for animal motives and animal studies could be recognized, which should accompany its entire Œuvre.

With the completion of his apprenticeship at the drawing school in 1805 Klein had to orientate himself again. After an apprenticeship as a mechanic, which was immediately terminated, his tolerant father gave him a place in Ambrosius Gabler's (1762-1834) respected Nuremberg art school and workshop. Gabler's teaching principle was based on the study of nature and encouraged particularly individual observations and the production of many study sketches. Nevertheless, copying was also encouraged, primarily using the examples of Dutch and German artists of the 17th and 18th centuries. This teacher must also have noticed Klein's inclination to animal depictions, as he was often encouraged to visit the Nuremberg cattle market and the feeding grounds to draw there.

With increasing age Klein also made his first trips to the surrounding area of Nuremberg to find further motives for his study sketches. Alone or accompanied by his fellow artists and artist friends, he wandered through the nature of Franconian Switzerland and Upper Palatinate and captured views of the local landscape as well as picturesque ruins and rural homesteads with pencil and pen. He was often accompanied by the somewhat younger artist from Nuremberg Johann Christoph Erhard, with whom he was connected by the strong bonds of friendship even after their joint apprenticeship. These earliest hikes also gave rise to a completely new pictorial theme, which is often found in Klein's life's work and that of many of his friends: The portrait of artists on a journey. The mutual portraits bear witness to the cohesion of the group of friends around Klein, which was joined by Erhard as well as the joint fellow artists Georg Christian Wilder (1797-1855) and Conrad Wießner (1796-1865). The often almost genre-like portraits show the artists with their drawing utensils in the midst of nature or in the activity of drawing itself and document the mutual affection as well as the excursions as a joint study.

In addition to his independent studies in nature, Klein became acquainted with the professional use of printmaking techniques in Gabler's workshop, which he himself had already experimented with at the age of 13. As a young autodidact he already made his first etching in 1805 using a bent gutter as a printing plate and cheap, apparently purchased under dubious conditions, nitric acid. Successful, but not without little damage to clothing and body. Three years later, he was one of the first Nuremberg artists to venture into the technique of lithography, barely ten years after its invention by Alois Senefelder (1771-1834). The business-oriented merchant's son was still able to apply his own experience and the knowledge gained at Gabler under professional guidance during his years as an apprentice by beginning to etch and offer for sale the more popular of his nature sketches around 1809.

Johann Adam Klein
The cousin Schauer playing the flute, 1811
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Life becomes intense

Klein left Ambrosius Gabler's school in 1811 and was also motivated by his father to perfect his skills abroad. The death of his mother in the same year confirmed his decision to travel to Vienna, where he spent the next four years and attended the art academy. Especially the contact to artists around Archduke John of Austria influenced the young artist to further study trips in the surroundings. Seized with patriotism following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the Archduke inspired the topographical survey of landscapes in Austria and the incorporation of local nature into art. In 1812 Klein, together with his friends Johann Georg Mansfeld (1764-1817), Heinrich Joseph Mansfeld (1785-1866) and Joseph Feil (1783-1814), undertook a four week hike to Styria and drew the areas, outstanding architectures and not least scenes of everyday life and animals. In the following years Klein wandered through the area around Vienna, partly also with the mentioned companions, and made a journey to Hungary in 1814.

Klein's style of drawing and the choice of picture themes had already emerged in the last years of his apprenticeship and over time was directed even more strongly in the direction of realistic depictions of nature. He continuously collected sketches during the numerous walks and excursions, thus adding to a rich collection of animal, landscape and genre representations of the region. The turbulent times of the Napoleonic Wars also ensured frequent contact with the military milieu. Unlike his contemporaries, who preferred large battle cycles and heroic fighting scenes, Klein was more interested in everyday soldier life, uniforms, carriages and simple camp scenes. The military attracted him no less than the folk costumes, rustic farmhouses and ox carts that he discovered on his excursions to the surrounding countryside of Vienna. The baroque splendour of Vienna with its impressive buildings and the preciously dressed court society, however, hardly enticed him to draw.

In Vienna, Klein met the Nuremberg art dealer Johann Friedrich Frauenholz (1758-1822), whom he alreadyknew from his hometown. Frauenholz, who was one of the most important art dealers and publishers in Nuremberg, had early discovered the young artist's talent and supported him with letters of recommendation for his trip to Vienna. He also bought all of Klein's etchings and enthusiastically ordered future sheets. During a later visit to Vienna he took Klein to Nuremberg as a travel companion, so that he saw his family and hometown for the first time since years in 1815. Following the example of his early years, he used his short stay to go on excursions with his friends, of whom Georg Christoph Wilder, Conrad Wießner and Johann Christoph Erhard are to be mentioned here.

In Vienna Johann Adam Klein has made the acquaintance of Count Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid (1776-1840), who was later to become a loyal customer of the artist. He had encouraged a trip along the Rhine, which had to be postponed for the time being due to the ongoing wars of liberation. In June 1815, however, after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, the situation seemed save enough that Klein ventured to set forth on this journey. Via Bamberg he reached the Main from Nuremberg and followed this waterway to the beautiful Rhine. There he concentrated his artistic expedition especially on the impressive Middle Rhine region between Rüdesheim and Coblenz, where a multitude of castle ruins and medieval fortresses tower above picturesque wine villages, which nestle against the steep rocks of the winding river valley. Like most of his contemporaries, Klein fell for the romanticism of the river and took up the element of water in his landscape depictions, which had always remained behind the motifs of mountains and meadows in his Austrian drawings.

Johann Adam Klein
View of Scheideck, horsemen and dairymen in the mountains, 1824
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Travels, Travels, Travels

In June 1816 Klein set off for another trip to Vienna. This time his childhood friend Johann Christoph Erhard, who hoped for as much success in Vienna as Klein had experienced in recent years, accompanied him as a travel companion. As usual, the itinerary already served the two friends, who were accompanied to Regensburg by Wilder and Wiessener, for the production of numerous studies and drawings. Back in Vienna, the old circle of friends welcomed the two artists joyfully and Klein was immediately overwhelmed with new orders. During this time he devoted himself not only to drawing and etching, but also to the technique of oil painting, which he hardly used for mastery and whose contours often give an idea of the preference for the pointed pencil. During his second stay in Vienna Klein enjoyed many commissions and again he set out on hikes in the surrounding area, sketching costumes, animals and rural sceneries.

At the same time he protected the young artist Erhard and also helped provide him contacts and commissions in Vienna. Together with their friends Ernst Welker (1788-1857), Heinrich Reinhold (1788-1825) and Friedrich Philipp Reinhold (1779-1840) they soon set off on a journey to the Salzkammergut, visited Salzburg and Berchtesgaden. While the friends turned to Vienna again, Klein separated from them in July 1818 and went to Munich. After several months there, the serious illness of his brother Georg called him back to Nuremberg. After his brother's death in August 1819, Klein headed south again with the objective of travelling to Italy. At first, however, he hiked through Switzerland and made a detour to Zürich, where he visited his brother Conrad. Probably not only to find solace after his family's loss, but also to get to know better the landscape in the picturesque Swiss mountains, which made a lasting impression on him.

The onward journey led Klein over the Simplon Pass through the Valais Alps to stopovers in many Italian cities on the way to Rome, until he reached the eternal city shortly before Christmas in 1819. Once there, he was immediately welcomed by his former travel companions, who had already arrived from Vienna before him, and quickly made contact with German artists in the Italian capital. He also maintained friendly contact with the Nazarene group, although as a faithful realist he did not share their enthusiasm for religious and historical pictorial. Together with other artists he participated in studio sessions at Villa Malta and drew the invited models. He also continued with enthusiasm the habit of making excursions into the surroundings. He continued his landscape studies as well as visiting surrounding homesteads and farms in order to draw regional costumes and animals.

Within the circle of German artists in Rome, Klein also met Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, who commissioned him to paint the Ponte Salario. During the study trip to this old bridge in the Roman Campagna the artist friend Erhard suffered a delusion and even reported a devilish phenomenon that later drove him to an attempt at suicide by drinking corrosive acid. Klein accompanied Erhard back to Rome, but travelled on to Naples in July 1820. He left the care of the suicidal friend to others, not least because he had to cope with many orders of his works.

In October 1821 he visited Erhard with his friend Johann Joachim Faber in Olevano, who housed and cared for him together with his wife. Klein tried to persuade Erhard at this meeting to accompany him back to Nuremberg, but had to go home alone after a refusal. The news of his friend's death after a second suicide attempt in January 1822 only reached him with delay. At the first shock of the news, he considered returning to Rome, but did not pursue it any further. Instead, he processed the loss of the friend in making a title vignette for his artistic estate. In the fall of 1822 Klein undertook a final study trip to Leipzig and Dresden, apparently a turning point in his biography. During the first 30 years of his life, he frequently travelled as an artist and never failed to make sketches of landscapes, animals and people, which he recorded in more than 50 sketchbooks. He travelled especially to Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland and the northern parts of Italy, capturing all the impressions that presented themselves to him and that in his eyes were worthy of depiction. In addition, as an artist he succeeded in gaining fame and in establishing contact with influential clients. The success of the early years had developed into a highlight, memories and sketchbooks were bulging with ideas and impressions and could be used and exploited in the following decades.

Johann Adam Klein
On the Furca Mountains in Switzerland, 1820
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Rewarded with bountiful harvest


In February 1823 Klein married Julie Friedrike Wüst from Castell, with whom he had seven children. In the following years Klein produced a large number of graphic print series, which were dedicated to both animal motifs and memories of his travels. He also created numerous drawings, etchings and paintings and was requested by artlovers. In the course of the years a decline was noticeable, so that the father of the family saw himself faced with the situation of increasingly uncertain income and even began to sell single sheets of his sketchbooks. In 1837 his wife Julie died and left Johann Adam Klein as widower. Deprived of further family ties and without the possibility of committing himself as an artist, he decided to turn to the thriving art capital of Munich, which enjoyed nationwide attention at that time through the “Munich school“. Outdated and unpopular motifs of landscape and traditional costume representation became modern again, in which Klein saw the opportunity to bring his pictorial works onto the market once again.

Shortly before moving to Munich, he married the widow of copper engraver Georg Jacob Wolf, Catharina Isabella Magdalena Wolf, née Riedel, not least to give his children a mother again. In Munich Klein went on small trips to the surrounding countryside according to old habits and sketched the regional landscape and the costumes of the Bavarians. In addition, he also dealt with newer developments such as the railway, which he used in some works. The events of the revolution of 1848 interested him, similar to the Napoleonic Wars, especially with regard to uniform fashion and soldier life. However, he no longer achieved the success of the early years with his works. The family was plagued by diseases several times and already in 1848 Johann Adam Klein's eyesight began to fade, thus depriving him of the basis of his work. In 1849, following a previous request to the Board of Directors of the Academy of Fine Arts, he was granted a state pension. In November 1862, the Munich Artists gave him a great celebration in honour of his 70th birthday. In honour of his life's work, he was also awarded the Cross of Merit of the Ernestische Hausorden by the Duke of Saxony-Coburg. However, these honours almost seem to be the final recognition of his past achievements, but the artist's productive time was slowly coming to an end. In the 1860s Klein suffered several blows of fate and finally a stroke that temporarily paralyzed him. From 1871 on, an eye disease and abdominal problems finally made the work impossible. After a last move within Munich, Johann Adam Klein died on May 21, 1875 and was buried with the great sympathy of the residents of Munich.

Benedikt Ockenfels


For cataloguing Klein's prints

Klein's work already enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime, so it is no surprise that the graphic collectors soon appeared and the artist's extensive graphic work underwent a conscientious reappraisal. For Klein's seventieth birthday, his friend and collector C. Jahn published an extensive catalogue of almost all his graphic works in 1863 in München. He has sorted the graphics in detail according to the date of origin and recorded the various states of the printing plates. Jahn was not the first to do so, but no one has reached such an extent and depth as he has, so that even today, after 150 years, the catalogue of works is the measure of all things if one wants to deal with Klein's prints.


Recommended Reading

  • Angerer, Martin und Inge Rüttinger-Daferner (Hrsg.): Johann Adam Klein & Johann Christoph Erhard. Die Schenkung Dr. Anton Haug, Regensburg 2001.
  • Behrends, Rainer: Einleitung, in Universität Leipzig (Hrsg.): Johann Adam Klein. 1792-1875. Zeichnungen, Aquarelle, Gemälde, Radierungen. Ausstellung zum 200. Geburtstag, Leipzig 1992.
  • Schwemmer, Wilhelm (Hrsg.): Johann Adam Klein. Ein Nürnberger Meister des 19. Jahrhunderts, Nürnberg 1966.
  • Tschoke, Jutta (Hrsg.): Romantische Entdeckungen. Johann Adam Klein. 1792-1875 Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgrafik, Nürnberg 2006.
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