How a Zombie Mom Became an Art History Star

Johann August Nahl, Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751. Church of Hindelbank, Bern canton, Switzerland

Maria Madgalena Langhans, the 28-year-old wife of a Swiss pastor, died in childbirth on Easter Sunday 1751. Her husband commissioned German sculptor Johann August Nahl (1710-1781) to create a suitable tomb. Nahl's sandstone composition showed mother and child breaking out of the crypt (the sculpture itself) at resurrection. The blend of meta and schmaltz impressed Goethe, Schopenhauer, and James Fenimore Cooper. Nahl's tomb became a touchstone of the incipient Romantic movement. Mary Shelley would have been aware of it when she wrote Frankenstein in the rainy Swiss summer of 1816. Shelley foregrounded the creepiness of literal reanimation. That high concept still fuels Hollywood franchises and Halloween kitsch.

Maria Madgalena Langhans' tomb also plays a role the history of taste. Nahl is hardly remembered outside of Germany and Switzerland, but for a time his Langhans tomb was an essential stop on any European grand tour, as worthy of contemplation as masterworks of Michelangelo and Bernini. Those who saw Nahl's monument in the village church of Hindelbank, near Bern, wanted souvenirs. Prints were legion, as were small sculptural reproductions in terracotta and porcelain. 

Niderviller Porcelain version of Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans, about 1780. LACMA

In 2002 LACMA bought a porcelain replica made by the Niderviller (France) Manufactory. This year the Getty acquired a somewhat later, larger (18.3 in) version by the Swiss Nyon Porcelain Manufactory as part of a group purchase of porcelain objects from France, Germany, and Switzerland. The Nyon model is attributed to Johann Valentin Sonnenschein. 

Nyon Manufactory, Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans, about 1785. J. Paul Getty Museum

One of the most elaborate homages is a full-size copycat tomb in Britain, made for a Victorian pastor whose wife and child died of smallpox. "The quality of the monument is good," says the U.K.'s Church Monuments Society, "but the whole has most bizarre effect, resembling the worst type of zombie film." 

James Forsyth, Monument to Madelina Lance (detail), 1861. Church of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Buckland St. Mary, U.K.  
The Nahl story has a California postscript. The sculptor's great-grandson, Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878), tried his luck in the California gold rush and settled into life as an artist in Sacramento and San Francisco. He painted the Old West in a late romantic mode, occasionally veering into the maudlin. In the Autry Museum's The Dead Miner (1867), a gold miner dies clutching the photo of his beloved. His faithful dog howls his only dirge. 

Once rated California's first great painter, Nahl's reputation did not long survive his death. Today he is appreciated as camp, to the extent he's appreciated at all. One of Nahl's paintings was long on display at Knott's Berry Farm—an ignominy comparable to Tár's Monster Hunter concert. (The Knott family donated the painting to the Orange County Museum of Art.)

If there's a message here, it's all is vanity. The judgments of taste and art history can be as fleeting as life itself. 
Charles Christian Nahl, The Dead Miner, 1867. Autry Museum of the American West


I can't look away from Charles Christian Nahl's The Dead Miner of 1867. It's riveting.
I'd take that over the stone original and ceramic repros any day.

There's a monograph on him at the Watson Library, which I will check out:

Author: Stevens, Moreland L
Title: Charles Christian Nahl : artist of the Gold Rush, 1818-1878 : [exhibition catalogue] / Moreland L. Stevens, with the assistance of Marjorie Arkelian ; [edited by Richard V. West ; with additional contributions by Roger D. Clisby, Susan Franz Lake, and the editor]
Publication Info: Sacramento, Calif. : E. B. Crocker Art Gallery, 1976

Thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
> The judgments of taste and art history can be as
> fleeting as life itself.

Correct. Throw in the way that cultural fads and political dynamics come and go, and, voila, today's trendiness is tomorrow's "yeech." Or visa versa.

Moreover, recall how Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s affected hundreds of millions of people---for decades. Mao and his social circle (eg, Mao's wife Jiang Qing) had a way of judging taste and history (which included the arts and culture) that upended generations of people before them.

Anonymous said…
The NYT profiled David Geffen. Here is the opening paragraph:

"In Los Angeles, you can wander through Judy Baca murals at the cavernous Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, view “Beetlejuice” at the sphere-like David Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum, watch “The Inheritance” at the Geffen Playhouse, and follow the progress of the new David Geffen Galleries, a striking work of architecture that will span Wilshire Boulevard, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art."

... We also learn in the article that Geffen likes to donate to "transformative cultural projects" where he trusts that the architect and the beneficiaries will do "something great."

Anonymous said…
Charles Christian Nahl, along with his half-brother Arthur, also had a major role in establishing the Olympic Club in San Francisco, the first athletic club in the United States.

A number of his paintings are on display at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento--they were commissioned by Judge E.B. Crocker and his wife Margaret in the late 1860s and early 1870s. I sort of like his painting "The Fandango", which depicts a fiesta on a rancho in California during the Mexican era.
mughound said…
Nahl's The Dead Miner is like Michaelangelo's Pieta but Mary replaced with Lassie. It's hilarious.
Avatar Maker said…
E.B. Crocker and his wife Margaret in the late 1860s were a remarkable couple whose lives were intertwined with the transformative times of the era. As prominent figures of their time, they played significant roles in shaping their community and leaving a lasting impact on history.