295 springs of Daniel Mikołaj Chodowiecki
Place: passage at Grobla I Street
Graphic identification: Michał Pecko
In the book Kalina Zabuska The Adventures of Daniel Chodowiecki we can read:
"An outstanding draughtsman and etcher, Daniel Mikołaj Chodowiecki was born in Gdańsk. It was here, in the harbour city on the banks of the grey Motława River, that he began his artistic path 295 years ago.
Born on October 16, 1726 in Gdańsk, Daniel Mikołaj (Niklaus) Chodowiecki had an intricate genealogy: a Pole after his father, he was also of French and German descent on his maternal grandparents’ side. Although an array of circumstances brought Chodowiecki to Berlin at a young age, he preserved memory of his identity and many times declared his Polish allegiance.
Thousands of drawings and over two thousand engravings in Daniel Chodowiecki’s portfolio may certainly inspire awe, yet the outstanding artist was also an interesting man. Were it not for his caring heart and tenderness for his close family, he would not have left such an imposing legacy. He was a loving son and brother, husband and father, and later also a caring uncle to his nephews. He was not driven by a desire to succeed but became successful because of his steadiness and diligence. This was the main driver motivating Daniel Chodowiecki to work hard on his artistic skills and overcome all obstacles with perseverance and practice.
Daniel Mikołaj Chodowiecki, the great artist of small formats
Those who learned the joys of reading from the books illustrated by Chodowiecki and turned pages with excitement to look at his prints were probably oblivious to the artist’s motivations. For them, Daniel Chodowiecki was simply an outstanding illustrator who was able to raise interest in a scientific paper, epistolary novel or a poem. He knew how to please the more refined as well as the less sophisticated book lovers. “So many of these publications would not have been received with such interest and read with avidity, if not for Chodowiecki” claimed Ludwig Gleim, a poet and Daniel Chodowiecki’s contemporary. And he was not alone in that belief. Chodowiecki’s subtle etchings adorned calendars and several issues of the Almanach de Gotha. He illustrated the works of authors such as Lessing, Gleim, Gessner, Rousseau, Cervantes, Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare and Beaumarchais. Others, like Iffland, Grossman or Kotzebue, are predominantly remembered because of Chodowiecki’s illustrations. As an artist, Chodowiecki was sensitive to the epoch’s libertarian aspirations. His art was used to popularise the idea of the Third Estate, the core of the French Revolution, as he illustrated the works of Diderot, Walter and Pestalozzi. Chodowiecki’s etchings can be found in an article on the American Revolution detailing the most important events of the American Revolutionary War, which was published in a 1784 almanac. The publication reached a wide readership and expanded the European readers’ knowledge of the events that changed the political map of the world.
Between Rococo and Romanticism, and firmly grounded in the age of Enlightenment, Chodowiecki’s talent flourished. The artist never flinched as he pursued his artistic career from the apprentice in a spice shop to the respected director of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, a renowned artist and a cultural luminary. He made use of all his virtues while cleverly and consistently compensating for his imperfections. He also knew when to abandon painting to which he was not predestined.
Daniel Mikołaj Chodowiecki took a chance and decided to follow the career of a book illustrator. A successful one, for that matter.
The most distinguished writers and poets of the German Enlightenment along with many authors of scientific papers held Daniel Chodowiecki in high regard as an apt artist whose imagination added character to their writings and secured favour with readers. The artist himself was most at ease portraying the townspeople. In his works, the personages show psychological depth with well-captured gestures and the house interiors are faithful representations of the bourgeoisie style from the second half of the 18th century. The compositions are studious and marked with brevity and clarity, as per expectations of the popular audience. Chodowiecki, in every respect the son of his age, was also an advocate of societal improvement. His moralising attitude was clearly visible in the series of illustrations focusing on the affected and pretentious behaviours common among the 18th century bourgeoisie. In Chodowiecki’s works scenes depicting modesty and restraint were contrasted (not without satirical flair) with scenes full of emphasis and exaltation, as the artist was not willing or able to resist the temptation to point out what was right and what was condemnable.
Daniel Mikołaj Chodowiecki taught his contemporaries the difference between reason and ridicule, between right and wrong
While pointing out to moral pitfalls, he gently poked fun at weaknesses and was by no means keen on passing harsh judgements. His inclination towards didacticism prompted comparisons with William Hogarth, the English painter, printmaker and moralist, one of the founders of the British school of painting (18th – 19th century). Chodowiecki was an equally keen observer of the world. He focused on emphasising consequences of reprehensible and immoral deeds while confronting them with applaudable acts worthy of imitation. But his sharp blade of satire did not intend to hurt anyone as Chodowiecki had an understanding for human weaknesses and preferred admonition to accusation.
His work enjoyed great popularity in England, where drawings and etchings with his signature were highly valued and sought after. In the end, German authorities had to put a ban on export of his works for the sake of protecting the national cultural heritage.
The life and oeuvre of Daniel Chodowiecki embodied the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Chodowiecki valued simple pleasures, family bliss, values grounded in love, loyalty and satisfying work. His work reflected the philosophy of sentimentalism with its return to nature, the moral criticism in the spirit of Diderot and the preromantic interest in the exotic and the European history and cultural tradition. As an artist who made engravings from personally created patterns, Daniel Chodowiecki honed his character through modesty and patience learned over the years in which he studied the art of engraving, a discipline that requires extensive craftsmanship. While gaining hands-on experience as an artist, Chodowiecki was also an avid reader: he read extensively on the history and theory of art to compensate for his lack of formal academic education. A passionate and gifted art collector, he eventually become an expert in that field.
Later in life Chodowiecki summarised his efforts with usual modesty:
“It makes me sad that despite my love and scrupulosity I am unable to achieve what she [Nature] has shown me.” And he concluded: “All our aspiration, all our pursuit is always an imperfect creation”."
Kalina Zabuska The Adventures of Daniel Chodowiecki, Gdańsk 2018
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