Jakob Philipp Hackert, like many of his compatriots, migrated to Italy in the second half of the 18th century, lured both by the promise of patronage and the excitement of being at the hub of the cultural world. Born in the German region of Brandenburg, he trained with his father and uncle who were both artists. He continued his studies in the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin where he moved in the same circle as the philosopher Georg Sulzer (1720–1779) whose belief that landscapes should be simultaneously natural and idealized would have impressed the young Hackert. In 1763 he accompanied his patron, the baron Adolf Friedrich von Olthof (1718–1793) to his house on the isle of Rügen, and from there in 1764 he spent a month with Olthof in Sweden and thence, in 1765, to Paris. In Paris he met the celebrated painter of coastal scenes Claude-Joseph Vernet (see cat. 40) who was to exert a decisive influence on him. Three years later, Hackert moved to Rome, where he painted remarkable views which combine a sense of observed reality with an idealizing, suffused golden light. Goethe was to write, ‘Hackert…is a master at copying Nature and has such a sure hand that he never has to correct a drawing’ (Goethe, with W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, trans., Italian Journey: 1786–1788, London, 1970, p. 345).
In addition to Vernet, the greatest influence on the German painter was his 17th-century predecessor Claude Lorrain, whose carefully composed ideal landscapes provided Hackert with a template for his own works. However, Hackert embodied a different style than Lorrain as he wanted plants and trees to be botanically correct and for places he painted to be recognized. Indeed, while he admired Lorrain, Hackert criticized him for his indifferent rendering of trees. Hackert’s pastoral idylls, often produced with porcelainlike refinement on a large scale, were immensely popular, attracting the attention of collectors as far away as Catherine the Great and as near as William Hamilton, who was based in Naples. Indeed, it was in Naples that Hackert secured his reputation. There he painted numerous depictions of local sites as well as the spectacular eruption of Mount Vesuvius of 1779.
In 1786, Hackert was appointed court painter to King Ferdinand IV. The following year, he met Goethe, who noted in his travel diary: ‘Today we paid a visit to Philipp Hackert, the famous landscape painter, who enjoys the special confidence and favor of the King and Queen… He is a man of great determination and intelligence who, though an inveterate hard worker, knows how to enjoy life’ (ibid.). Goethe became a close friend and went on to write a biography of Hackert which was published in 1811. This period saw the production of what Hackert regarded as his greatest works, The Four Seasons, destined for the royal hunting lodge at Fusaro. He went on to paint numerous views of the Bourbon ports, following the example of Vernet’s similar project in France. They are now in the Royal Palace of Caserta.
With the arrival of Napoleon’s army in 1799, like many artists, Hackert fled Naples, settling in Florence, where he died on 28 April 1807. The painter is buried in the Protestant cemetery in Livorno.
One of the first pictures Hackert executed for Ferdinand IV in 1782 was a view of S. Leucio. Here the monarch had established a small model village next to a silk manufactory that became famous throughout Europe. Goethe reports in Hackert’s biography that the King had requested the painting, although he knew ‘that this was not a picturesque region’ (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Werke, Weimar, 1891, vol. 46, p. 232); in other paintings he wished to see farm workers and women depicted harvesting hay. This episode illustrates the relationship that existed between Hackert and Ferdinand IV from the very beginning: the King was explicitly not interested in a ‘picturesque region’ but rather in the exact reproduction of a specific place whose local characteristics were to be realistically depicted. Hackert’s paintings for the monarch often provide information about the working population, such as fishermen in their boats, peasants harvesting grapes or stevedores unloading cargo in the harbors. However, these projects were never intended to document the social conditions of the workers. The paintings instead were intended as an accurate depiction of aspects of the economy of the Kingdom of Naples under the guidance of its enlightened monarch.
The present painting belongs to this documentation program. Hackert mentions the commission in a letter of 29 July 1786 to the Russian Count Andrej Rasumowsky (1752–1836). According to Hackert, the King had told him about a ‘beautiful picture to be executed’ ‘at Ponte Carbonaro on the way to Caserta’ (Nordhoff, op. cit., p. 113). Ferdinand IV was undoubtedly less interested in the landscape than in the type of production located here, the harvesting and processing of hemp: This material played a major role in the southern Italian economy until the 20th century and only lost importance with the advent of nylon and other artificial fibers.
Hackert’s painting shows the marshy area between Caserta and Naples near the village of Caivano, which is identifiable by the name of a bridge, ‘Ponte a Carbonara’, also mentioned by the King; the bridge can be seen on the right of the picture. A network of canals, the so-called ‘Regi Lagni’, had already been built here between 1610 and 1616. These canals were developed under the Bourbon kings and intended to drain the marshland; however, the area was finally drained only in the 20th century.
Hackert’s picture shows in detail the individual steps in the extraction of hemp. In the foreground, one can see a freshly harvested hemp bundle that has been set up to dry for the first time; behind it, bundles of previous years’ hemp lie in the water, partly weighed down with stones, which had to be soaked for eight to ten days. On the land, oxcarts and pack mules stand ready to carry away the soaked hemp bundles. They had to be ‘beaten’ in a final step, which probably happened at another site. Tanned, lightly clad farm workers are busy with the hemp bundles in the water and on land. Straw huts provide a little shelter from the sun. In the foreground, a seated man chats with two women. Perhaps the dog, which follows another woman, belongs to him. Although it is not an actual self-portrait, the seated man could allude to the presence of the painter, who was always accompanied by a dog on his excursions and whose path would have led over the bridge—Hackert has placed his signature here, while the place name appears in the lower right corner of the picture.
Even though the artist was traveling on behalf of the King, he must have been attracted by the region around the canals of the ‘Regi Lagni’. Exploring landscapes off the beaten track was part of his ‘artistic wandering’; of his joy in such discoveries he wrote in 1793 about a newly found waterfall: ‘it was completely unknown to the art; I was the first to draw it in this century’ (Nordhoff, op. cit., p. 144). The same sentiment can be applied to the marshy area near the Ponte a Carbonara, whose still waters and uniform rows of trees had never been represented by any other landscape painter.
The painting ranks among the artist’s masterpieces. At the center of the composition is the canal, which extends from the background to the lower border of the picture. It is overarched by a high sky whose clouds are getting darker towards the upper border of the painting and seem to flow out of it, towards the viewer. The low horizon and the drifting clouds convey an impression of infinite expanse and great silence in which the country people go about their work, the details of which are clearly visible. Nevertheless, the picture does not contain any social criticism. Whether the water of the canal is foul, the air full of mosquitoes and the heat unbearable is not revealed here, nor was this the painter’s task. Rather, Hackert succeeds here in presenting a landscape far off the itinerary of the Grand Tour, capturing its peculiar beauty and showing its people engaged in a specific activity important to the Kingdom of Naples.❖