Born two hundred and fifty years ago in Jelgava was Johann Heinrich Baumann (1753-1832), who became an avid huntsman, but has gone down in history as a painter and author of various literary works. His wanderings as a hunter began, as he himself has documented, in 1769 at the age of 15, taking him later in life to Courland, Lithuania, Russia and Belarus. But for the son of a pastor, hunting could be at most an enjoyable pastime, and the tradition that the sons of pastors must follow in their fathers' footsteps took the young Johann Heinrich to Erfurt University to study theology. It was there, under the influence of the local Baroque master Jacob Samuel Beck (1715-1778) that in addition to his hunting zeal, he developed a passion for painting, and in 1776, Baumann returned to the land of his birth not as a respected shepherd of his flock, but as an artist. When Enlightenment ideas from the West reached the educated Germans of Courland and Livland and they dutifully turned to providing education and moral guidance for the Latvian serfs, the new ideas affected not only religious literature and church songbooks, but also secular texts. Along with Sunākste pastor Alexander Johann Stender (Stender the Younger), and Apriķi pastor Karl Gotthard Elverfeld, Johann Heinrich Baumann was one of the first authors of plays in Latvian, and it must be admitted that the human weaknesses expressed in his naïvely moralising dialogues remain just as topical at the present day.
According to historical sources, Baumann painted around 1700 "pictures", a prolific output that has enabled a considerable number of works to survive the many historical upheavals. The anniversary exhibition at the State Museum of Art (16.12.2003-8.02.2004) brings together the forty-three paintings known at present, giving a comprehensive picture of the artist's strictly limited range of themes and his unusual means of expression. Among the most prominent Baltic German artists, such as the painters of religious and mythological themes Johann Leberecht Eggink and Alexander Heubel, or the portrayer of romantic Italian landscapes Karl Grass, the artistic legacy of Baumann stands apart in terms of the ordinary, secular subject matter, portrayed in a weighty, down-to-earth manner, and in terms of the inconsistency of his professional level. But this is balanced by the human sincerity with which he depicts both hunters' kills and living creatures. A certain primitivism of form and the absence of higher spiritual qualities meant that Baumann's work was never regarded as first-rate art in his own day, and pre-war Latvian art historians have been reserved in their evaluation of his work. Visvaldis Peņģerots has written in Mākslas vēsture ("History of Art") that many of Baumann's paintings are of inconsistent quality, and that his self-portrait is quite primitive. The critic regards only "The Shot Birds" as painterly. Only in the mid-20th century did Johann Heinrich Baumann find a romantic admirer - the art historian and watercolourist Romis Bēms, who was the first to begin studying and promoting Baltic German art on a wider scale, resulting in the 1984 book Apceres par Latvijas mākslu simt gados ("Studies on a Century of Latvian Art"). I too, influenced by the emotive accounts given by the Latvian art history teacher, once tried to become acquainted at the Erfurt Angermuseum with the work of Baumann's teacher Jacob Samuel Beck, which has not been possible at other museums in Germany. Nowadays, the auction price of his still lifes fluctuates around 22 000 euro. The works of the Erfurt master are stylistically connected with Dutch 17th century painting. He is regarded as a good professional, but no more than that, though in his day he was a recognised master. We know from travel accounts by Berlin academician Johann Bernulli that around 1778 the collegiate assessor Andreas Johann Tech in Jelgava owned sixty works by Beck. There is a view that Baumann brought the works of his master with him when returning from his studies, but it is equally possible that they were already in the collection in Jelgava before then, and that he purposefully chose to study in Erfurt in 1772.
Following Beck, Johann Heinrich Baumann favoured the Dutch Old Masters, even though there is no doubt about the major difference in artistic level. It is hard to say who else, aside from Beck, attracted Baumann's attention, but there is no doubt that he was influenced in general by the scope and vitality of the Baroque Age. Some of the classic examples that serve to characterise the age will indicate the diverse range on offer: the still lifes with game of Jan Weenix the Younger, the pompous cockfights of Melchior d'Hondecoeter, the bulls, cows and dogs of Paulus Potter, and the emaciated hunting dogs from the sculptural group "Diana and Acteon", by Luigi Vanvitelli, in the Great Cascade of the Palazzo Reale. However, we cannot know what seemed important to the eyes and mind of Baumann, since in his writings he has not, unfortunately, touched on the theme of art.
In professional terms, the paintings of Johann Heinrich Baumann reveal inconsistency, since even within a single painting we find areas that are deftly created and fairly well drawn, juxtaposed with naïve primitivism, particularly in the background. From the present-day perspective, this dissonance is not seen as a serious problem, but in his day and in the 19th century this would have been regarded as a significant shortcoming in relation to the generally accepted criteria. The technology also leaves much to be desired, since in places tempera or even housepainters' paints have been used in addition to oil. Problematic is the darkened varnish, the later repainting and the traces of unprofessional restoration. But, leaving aside certain insignificant deficiencies, the painting of Baumann is undoubtedly a unique phenomenon, which still awaits serious study in the context of Latvian art history.
Like the Dutch Old Masters, the artist specialised in one particular field, painting still lifes with hunters' kills and living animals: hunting dogs, wild and domestic animals and birds. His extensive oeuvre was created by employing particular compositional approaches, developed from examples of the highest standard. In the colour scheme too, predominant is the traditional warm brown foreground and the cool background. The exhibition reveals the manifold variation of the motif of dead birds in the foreground, with the brown hunter's satchel at the side, behind which is the head of the beloved dog of the man who had commissioned the particular work. In "addressing the common people", Baumann made much use of diminutives: "Look around, and note the little fields full of crops, rippling like the waves of the sea in the little breeze. See the little fields full of nice little flowers." That same genuine sincerity emanates from the pensive picture of a brown bull, the fluffy little yellow chicks, the sentimental families of cats and puppies, and the touching scenes of roosting black grouse with red little flowers scattered by the birds' feet. Baumann was a passionate painter of dogs, showing not only the breed, but also the individual character of the hunter's faithful helper. As in the works of Paul Potter, these are full figure "portraits" in profile against a romantic background ("The Hunting Dog", 1796). Somewhat stiffer and more static are the conscientiously submissive dogs fulfilling their duty of guarding the dead hare ("Greyhound", 1810). On the other hand, created with agile movement and winding rhythm are the wild scenes of a chase after a fox or wolf, where the dogs tearing in the foreground are shown as merciless pursuers with teeth fiercely bared. For the most part, landscapes form the background of the still lifes and dog "portraits". Sometimes, exotic imagined elements are included - mountains, waterfalls, the sea with a sailing ship and steep, rocky coasts, but for the most part we see the green landscape of Latvia, with rolling hills, spruce forests and birch groves.
The story told in the striking work "The Eagle" (late 18th cent.) of a mighty eagle attacking a little bird and being itself attacked by a dog with teeth bared, would seem to be a kind of moral tale, telling us that no oppressor is omnipotent, there always being some still higher power. It is not so much the subject matter, atypical as it is of Baumann, that raises questions, but rather the inconsistent professional level. The painting of the major forms and details - the bird feathers and plants - is undoubtedly more masterful and mannered than in the later still lifes. The composition too indicates a different kind of thinking, somewhat dispassionate and stereotyped. A curious feature is the naturalistic fly in the middle of the canvas, seemingly not flying, but rather perched on the glass. We cannot say with certainty that "The Eagle" really is the work of Baumann, and looking at the range of his art, we may assume that the work has been painted after some other example. Equally, it may be similar in terms of professional level to the "Hare", now lost, for which in 1786 the council of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg awarded Johann Heinrich Baumann the pre-academician category of naznačennij. Certainly, this is not the painting of an adorable brown - and still living - hare that we see in the exhibition, which has associations with the famous watercolour by Albrecht Dürer "The Young Hare" (1502) from the Vienna Albertina Museum.
In a 1777 portrait painted by Jacob Samuel Beck, we see Baumann as a dark-haired youth with hair styled in the fashion of the day, and he painted himself several times as a mature man. The most ambitious of these self-portraits is undoubtedly the one showing him as a hunter dressed in green with his gun and his faithful friend by his side, with a symbolic dead fowl between its teeth. The low horizon in this vertical format emphasises the figure, indicating that the artist had a rather good opinion of himself, and only the ponderous style of expression prevents it from being equated with a typical parade portrait. One of the largest and best-known works by Baumann - a portrait of wine merchant Georg Conrad Nestor - has a horizontal format, giving a feeling of peace and harmony. Returned from a successful hunt, the gentleman reclines convivially in the shade of a tree with a glass in his hand. Beside him he has the birds he has shot, his pipe, his tobacco pouch and his wine bottle, while his dog lies at the beck and call of its master. A rustic idyll, no doubt also in tune with the painter's own character. Parts of the painting uncovered in the course of restoration work in the mid-20th century show that Baumann later repainted it, so that the gentleman, originally in a white shirt and orange trousers, was dressed up in a more "businesslike" black suit. The background scene, with the little manor house, the Russian tricolour of exaggerated size and the mechanically arranged spruce trees, contrasts with the touching naïvety of the portrait. All of Johann Heinrich Baumann's paintings, even the furious hunting scenes, exude a deep satisfaction with everything that life has to offer and a passion for creativity, so it seems he was evidently too vivacious and freethinking a person to devote his whole life to the serious and responsible position of a pastor.