Johann Wenzel PETER

(Karlsbad, 1745 – Rome, 1829)

Billy-Goat Sitting, 1790 ca.

Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 32.5 x 45.5 cm.

Ewe Sitting, 1790 ca.

Oil on canvas, 32.5 x 45.5 cm.


This two paintings are by Wenzel (or Wenceslaus) Peter, a Bohemian painter who was to become a naturalised Roman citizen.  The particular composition of the two animals, the brushwork, the typical treatment of the blades of grass in the painting with the ewe and, above all, the animals' almost "human" expression (particularly in the painting of the billy-goat) are all unique features of the animal "portraits" which Peter painted throughout his long and prestigious career.  The fascinating combination of naturalistic investigation, realism of expression and simplifying Neo-Classical synthesis in the two "portraits" is also an extremely characteristic feature of Peter's style.
The two paintings can be dated fairly accurately to around 1790, when Peter's painting moved torwards a more fully Neo-Classical stylisation, likening his work significantly to the experiments being conducted by the German artists living in Rome at the time, and in particular to the painting of Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein who, like Peter, was another painter of animal "portraits" in accordance with Johann Wolfgang Goethe's theories on the physiognomy of animals condensed in Swiss writer Johann Kaspar Lavater's treatise published in Leipzig in four volumes between 1775 and 1778.  This stylisation, however, which may also be found in the animalier paintings of Jacob Philipp Hackert, could not yet be detected so clearly in, for example, the canvases or frescoes that Peter had produced for the Casino Nobile of the Villa Borghese in Rome between the mid-1770s and the first half of the 1780s to a commission from Prince Marcantonio IV Borghese, under the architect Antonio Asprucci, in the context of the massive project for modernising and redecorating the building erected by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the early 17th century.
A more detailed analysis of the two paintings under discussion here reveals that the seated ewe's snout is very similar to the snout in a signed painting depicting a ewe and a ram auctioned by Christie's of London in 1995.
The blades of grass in the same painting of a seated ewe are also found in a signed canvas depicting a Pointer and Two Setters, in the left foreground beneath the dog's body, auctioned by Christie's in 2008.
While a stringent and unmistakable reference for the more summary oil painting on paper depicting a billy-goat may be found in a canvas in a private collection portraying a group of Billy-Goats.
Peter was the most celebrated and sought-after animalier painter in the Rome of Pope Pius VI Braschi and Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti, between the last quarter of the 18thcentury and the first twenty years of the 19th century. The Elenco dei più noti artisti viventi a Roma – an extremely valuable source for the study of late 18th century Roman art, which was drafted by German painter and art critic Halois Hirst in 1786 (who was in Rome from 1782 to 1796) – already describes the boundless esteem in which the painter was held at the time by the papal capital's artistic [1].

Moving to Rome for good in 1774, Peter was involved over the next fifty years (until his death in 1829) in several of the most important artistic projects to be commissioned in the papal capital in that lengthy period of time.

In addition to his important and substantial work on the Casino Borghese, the painter also took part in those same years in the decoration of the Salone d'Oro in the Palazzo Chigi and of the Gabinetto Nobile in the Palazzo Altieri (1789–90), in addition to which he was one of a team of painters commissioned by Czarina Catherine II of Russia, under the leadership of Cristoforo Unterperger from the Val di Fiemme, to create a life-size reproduction of Raphael's Vatican Loggia for the Winter Palace in the Hemitage [2].
His animalier paintings, for their part, spawned several graphic models which were translated over the years into micro-mosaic by the "Studio del Musaico della Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro" in the Vatican and by the numerous contemporary "micro-mosaic" workshops active in Rome.  Indeed a part of the figurative repertoire adopted by the Vatican workshop in the final years of the 18th century is based on Peter's paintings, as indeed are several of the mosaic panels produced by Cesare Aguatti and Giacomo Raffaelli and now preserved in some of the most important collections in the world, such as the  Gilbert Collection in London [3].
Peter rose to fame and acquired immense international prestige in the early years of the 19th century.  In an obituary in 1830, the German review "Kunstblatt" described him as "the man who painted animals' portraits" and pointed out that his paintings were not simply still in demand but were being shipped as far afield as "Naples, Florence, Milan, Prague, Prussia, Russia, Spain, France, America and, above all, to England" [4].
The esteem that this Bohemian painter enjoyed at the papal court was confirmed when his daughter Marianna Peter turned to Pope Gregory XVI in 1831, fully two years after his death, to sell some of the pictures that had remained unsold in her father's workshop.  The pope agreed to buy eleven of the paintings, and they were immediately transferred to the Vatican to join the collections in the museum there.  One of the most outstanding of these works, in terms of both size and quality, is Peter's monumental canvas depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of  Eden [5].

[1] Cfr. S. Rolfi, S. A. Meyer, L’“elenco dei più noti artisti viventi a Roma” di Alois Hirst, in “Roma moderna e contemporanea. Rivista interdisciplinare di studi”, anno X, n. 1-2, January-August 2002, La città degli artisti nell’età di Pio VI,  monographic edition edited by L. Barroero e S. Susinno, Rome 2002, pp. 241-261

[2] See M. B. Guerrieri Borsoi, La copia delle Logge di Raffaello di Cristoforo Unterperger, in Cristoforo Unterperger. Un pittore fiemmese nell’Europa del Settecento, exhibition catalogue, ed. C. Felicetti, Rome, pp. 77-82; N. Nikulin, Le Logge di Raffaello all’Ermitage di San Pietroburgo, in Giovan Battista Dell’Era (1765-1799). Un pittore lombardo nella Roma neoclassica, exhibition catalogue (Treviglio), ed. E. Calbi, Milan, pp. 29-39.

[3] Cfr. J. Hanisee Gabriel, The Gilbert Collection: Micromosaics, with contributions by A. M. Massinelli, and essays by J. Rudoe and M. Alfieri, London 2000.

[4]“Kunstblatt”, Necrolog, 1830, p. 191.

[5] Cfr. G. Sacchetti, “Adamo ed Eva nel Paradiso Terrestre”. Di Venceslao Peter nella Pinacoteca Vaticana, in “Bollettino, Monumenti, Musei e Gallerie Pontificie”, XI, 1991, pp. 179-187.